An extremely grim first novel, about the way victims can all too easily shade into victimizers, from an Irish poet and prize-winning storywriter.
Alice is married to the wealthy, cold, brutal Paddy Lynch, a man significantly older than she and once involved with Alice’s now-dead older sister. Years ago, Alice used Paddy’s advances to escape from her family and from a childhood sex abuser, but now she is trapped in a loveless, abusive marriage and can find only temporary comfort in spending her husband’s considerable wealth on expensive artworks. She seeks solace in bed with John, a naïve graduate student who’s head-over-heels for her and who’s friends with Sandy, the skittish young gallery manager who may or may not be having an S&M affair with Mick Delaney, a former footballer and Paddy’s college chum, the handsome man Alice had hoped would “rescue” her those many years ago. But instead of Mick, she got Paddy, while Mick went off and married certifiably crazy Nora (after Paddy dumped her for Alice so long ago), who is about to poison the neighbor’s cat. Such is the incestuously bound group of miserable souls around whom Wall has built a bleak narrative of lies, betrayals, manipulations, and ugly twists. Nora articulates the emptiness at the core of their lives: “My doctor is a great believer in the golden mean . . . If you can get the right combination of uppers and downers you won’t ever have to experience anything at all.” Wall’s prose, though occasionally crystalline, is often confusing—until the last third of the story, when things race toward their bloody conclusion. What keeps the reader interested is not genuine caring—even Alice, with her history of victimization, is difficult to root for—but a perverse compulsion to see how badly things will turn out.
A sordid tale that, when you think it can’t possibly get any worse, does.