There’s been lots of hype around this latest book by Liz Nugent. I read her first novel a few years ago and found it sufficiently creepy, so I was happy to give Strange Sally Diamond a try when it was sent my way. A few books into their career I find many thriller writers really hit their stride, so I was excited to see how Nugent had progressed. Like her first book, this latest is an expert depiction of how a twisted mind can influence those around them, the excuses we make for odd behaviour, and how odd, is too odd? It’s a disturbing read as it includes depictions of long-term kidnapping and confinement, but like the success of Emma Donoghue’s Room, this seems to be a topic that sells lots of books.
Sally Diamond is in her forties, and has lived with her adopted father all her life. He eventually passes away, and leaves her with a letter explaining the origins of her biological family, and how she came to be adopted. Her backstory is a horrific one that made headlines news decades ago, and the death of her adopted father brings all this history back into the forefront of the public’s mind, turning Sally into an object of fascination for everyone in her small town. Sally’s early childhood affected her development into an adult, so she struggles with demonstrating emotions and understanding social cues. Her adopted father sheltered her as much as possible, so she’s never had a job, a romantic relationship, or even a friend. Luckily some people come to her aid when she’s left alone, and a small community of neighbors and acquaintances assist Sally with becoming independent, but then she begins receiving strange letters and packages in the mail from someone claiming to know the truth of her childhood, and her birth parents. Sally wants to continue moving forward with her life, but these letters reveal things no one else would know about, unless they had been present when Sally was just a young girl, which is a time she has no recollection of.
This is an odd comment to make about this book, but I was surprised at how funny Sally’s inner thoughts were, and the lightness this brought to a very otherwise dark book. Because she had survived such a traumatic childhood, many parts of her memory and social development were completely lost, so her inner dialogue is completely unguarded, thinking things that would bring other people shame, but she doesn’t experience that emotion. These observations of hers added some much-needed respites from the horror of the plotline. This exchange below is when Sally is told by a relative that her husband of forty years is dying of cancer:
“I wanted to ask her how often they had sex, if she enjoyed it, if she was going to have him cremated, if I was expected to go to the funeral, but I didn’t.
‘I can’t imagine life without him. It’s stomach cancer, with secondaries in the lungs and liver…’
‘That is sad.’ Privately, I thought forty years was plenty of time.”-p.152 of Strange Sally Diamond by Liz Nugent
The plot switches between the perspective of two different people – Sally, and someone from her early childhood. I won’t go into too much detail because I don’t like including spoilers in my reviews, but just know that the true identity of people isn’t the entire mystery. Readers are let in on secrets about half way through the book, so the suspense then builds when we realize punishment may or may not be on the horizon for layers of evil deeds committed upon one another.
Nugent is also careful in humanizing everyone, the good, the bad, and the ones caught in between. It’s not delved into deeply, but we are given windows into explanations of why some people have turned out the way they did – no one is ever blameless, but very few people shoulder all the blame. The only person who is depicted as ignorant and entirely at fault is a racist shopkeeper that’s run out of Sally’s small town. Strangely this woman pops up later in the plot to do some more racist ranting, so her character reminded me more of an internet troll than anything else.
Overall it’s a great thriller, one that I raced through in a matter of days. Now that Fall reading season is upon us, I recommend picking this one up as the weather turns colder; this book feels a little too dark to pick up and enjoy on a hot summer day, it’s a moody one best read wrapped in a blanket.