Compelling, dark, twisty, weird, funny, heartbreaking, tender and suspenseful, Strange Sally Diamond (Penguin Random House 2023) by Liz Nugent is an absolute must read for anyone who enjoys an intense psychological thriller with an unforgettable protagonist. With the thematic feel of My Absolute Darling, the unsettling terror of Room and the quirky characteristics of Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, this novel will keep you enthralled from the very first page to the unexpected surprises and reveals at the end.
‘Sally Diamond cannot understand why what she did was so strange. She was only doing what her father told her to do, to put him out with the rubbish when he died.’
Forty-something Sally is a bit odd and definitely socially awkward, but when she takes her elderly father at his word after his quiet death, and puts him in a bin bag and then incinerates his body in the barn, she can’t understand what all the fuss is about. It’s what he wanted, after all. Sally doesn’t get humour, sarcasm, or social cues, and is more than a little surprised when the villagers ‘overreact’ to her actions. She has led a sheltered and loved life at home with her parents, both now gone, and there is a lot about the world she doesn’t comprehend. The character of Sally, so like Eleanor Oliphant, is the bright star in this book. She is straight-talking, brutally honest, hopelessly naïve, blunt and hilariously funny even though she doesn’t mean to be and mostly can’t understand why people are laughing. But she means well. And with her father gone, she must try to gain some independence, learning to trust those around her and venturing further than she ever has before.
But there is a reason Sally is like she is … and when her past is uncovered and she is hounded by the media, the uncomfortable childhood that she thought she couldn’t remember begins to seep back into her life. ‘Relatives’ begin to appear that she didn’t know she had. A man from New Zealand seems distressingly interested in her, although she can’t fathom the connection. Sally tries to trust those closest to her, her doctor and her therapist, but as she attempts to make new friends she realises that people often don’t mean what they say, and that communication can be ambiguous.
Honestly the character of Sally could be a book alone – she is fabulous, curious, unknowable, odd, eccentric, clever, kind, rude, brash, and incredibly funny. Nugent has gifted us a protagonist I will never forget.
But Sally is only part of the puzzle of this psychological crime thriller, an enigmatic hall of mirrors where everything is reflected but nothing is what it seems. As Sally begins to untangle her past, it explains a lot about why she is the way she is, but it also presents many more questions. The initial chapters seem funny and light-hearted, if in a black and darkly crafted way, but then the book morphs into something truly shocking, terrifying and distressing.
A strong theme in the novel is the malleability of children, and their resilience, and the intergenerational trauma that is passed down through generations, with children growing into adults who repeat the sins of their parents even though they know what they are doing is wrong. The charged atmosphere within these pages produces a taut, tight, page-turning, vivid, deliciously creepy and gripping book that is nonetheless compassionate and moving. It is a challenging read, treading in uncomfortable territory and encompassing difficult themes. The humour and eventual good relationship-building elevate the darkness to something bearable, even something hopeful and optimistic. Nugent has achieved greatness in writing a disturbed character in a disturbing situation, a narrative both unsettling and disquieting, and yet it is simultaneously surprising, uplifting, original and intriguing. If you love clever and pacy thrillers, with memorable and unique characters and a truly shocking story, read this book immediately if not sooner. It will worm its way into your head and stay there, as your brain tries to unravel the intricacies and intimacies of what has occurred.