The opening lines of this novel are wonderfully theatrical:
“All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin.”
Our Little Cruelties by Liz Nugent is a gleefully dark novel, filled with mean, selfish, and cruel individuals. It wouldn’t be a stretch to say that Nugent’s latest novel features one of the most unlikable casts of characters I have ever encountered in a book. And yet, while the Drumm brothers and most of their social circle, are certainly detestable, the satirical tone that pervades Nugent’s narratives makes her characters’ nastiness a lot more ‘digestible’. Also, by exaggerating their worst traits and inflating the behaviours and reactions of nearly every-single character, the author gives her book a darkly humorous quality that keeps the story, and its characters, from being taken too seriously.
“You see, in our family somebody always had to be the butt of the joke.”
The alternating point of views and the non-linear structure of this novel add some spice to what would otherwise be a run-of-the-mill dark family drama. We have three brothers from Dublin:
William, a film producer who believes that his only ‘weakness’ are women and that he is the “most successful and least screwed-up” Drumm brother; Brian, the middle-child, who, as the only non-famous and rather forgettable brother, feels like the underdog of the family (but before readers begin to feel sympathetic towards him we soon see him for the greedy skinflint he really is); lastly, there is Luke, the youngest brother is perhaps the only one who isn’t a wholly repugnant being. He has his moments of dickishness but readers are soon confronted by the troubled state of his mental health. His life is punctuated by unhealthy behaviours: as a boy he went through a zealously religious phase, while years later, once his music career kicks off, he goes in and out of clinics, perpetually plagued by morbid hallucinations and nightmares. Alcoholisms, drugs, paranoia, depression, become the backdrop to his 20s and 30s.
In spite of their different career paths and lifestyles William, Brian, and Luke often find themselves, much to their chagrin, drawn back together. While we initially believe that Luke is the only Drumm brother to demonstrate concerning behaviour, we soon see notice that William and Brian aren’t as clear-headed as they’d like to believe.
“We all knew the experience had scarred him deeply, but it was one of our family’s little cruelties to revisit it, often.”
The story charts their bitter relationship as they try to one-up each other throughout the decades.The three brothers have never been on easy terms. They are—and always have been—rivals. If something good happens to one of them, the other two are envious and feel they themselves are entitled to happiness/success/money. The little ‘cruelties’ that they do to one another can vary from a seemingly childish taunt to a much more perfidious offence. As the narrative progresses we see that most of their interactions have always been either openly hostile or purely transactional.
Whichever brother is narrating will often paint himself as the blameless victim, the only ‘sane/good’ Drumm brother. I enjoyed discovering more about the Drumm’s familial history and found the story to be fairly suspenseful.
However, as much I enjoyed the ongoing melodrama between the Drumm brothers, part of me was ultimately unconvinced by the whole thing. From the first pages we understand that these three have never and will never love each other. Even Luke is far too self-involved to care for his older brothers. If he helps them out, he doesn’t do this out of selflessness.
The Drumm brothers have always resented or outright hated one another. At times it seems that there is some loyalty or affection between them but it is merely a false impression. They pretend to do things out of ‘brotherly’ concern or care but they are just trying to keep face (with their parents/partners/etc.). This made their recurring ‘betrayals’ less duplicitous. These ‘cruelties’ don’t seem all that cruel once we realise that they never shared a bond or connection. A toxic type of love would have been more interesting…but what we have here is three guys pretending—not very hard—that they feel something other than distaste for one another. They don’t seem hurt by the cruel words or slights they receive, rather they seem to think on the lines of ‘how dare he do this to me’.
I don’t know…I just didn’t feel the passion behind their actions. These characters weren’t unreliable as such. They simply recount events in a way that puts them in a good-light. And when they are describing some of their questionable behaviour they do so in a matter-of-fact way, without any ceremony. They quickly and efficiently justify their actions by saying that it was the only way or that the other brother deserved it.
It would have been a lot more interesting if they had done these ‘cruelties’ to the people they loved rather than to people they did not care for. In fact, they seemed to care for no one but themselves.
For the most part Nugent does a terrific job in rendering certain time periods: from the 70s to the early 2000s. However, when it came to the 2010s she gives us a simplistic vision by portraying this time as little other than ‘the social media/influencer era’. Here we have cliche after cliche. William’s daughter is the embodiment of the millennial (or what individuals of a certain age imagine all millennials to be like): she is attention-seeking, body-insecure, not very bright, bisexual only because it makes her seem alternative, a self-harmer, a fake depressive…in general Nugent’s portrayal of mental illness struck me as little other than showy.
Speaking of female characters, the three main women in this novel came across as flat. Their actions made no sense and it would have been a lot more interesting to have some short sections from their povs. The Drumm’s mother had the potential of being a complex character but she doesn’t get a lot of page-time. William’s wife is a mere plot device.
Also, as much as I was entertained by the sensationalist behaviour of these characters, I did find the latter-half of the novel to be slightly less intriguing than the first. The whole build up to ‘which one of them is dead’ loses a bit of its initial steam and the final reveal struck me as anticlimactic.
The epilogue was laughably cheesy, and I’m unsure if this was intentional or not.
Our Little Cruelties is best enjoyed as a wickedly fun read rather than a psychological thriller. For the most part it is engaging and chock-full of drama between horrible people. The conversational style of the brothers’ narratives drew me in, so that I almost felt implicated by what they were telling me. Dark moments or serious issues are treated with flippancy, in a soap-opera sort of manner. If you stop to think whether the story or characters make sense…well, it might ruin your reading experience.
“We three brothers all looked, one to the other. We knew it was inevitable.”
My rating: ★★★✰✰ 3 stars