Sunday 19 August 2018

Great injustice as women lose in man's world

  • CRIME: Skin Deep, Liz Nugent, €16
  • The Woman in the Woods, John Connolly, Hodder & Stoughton €14.99
Liz Nugent's latest novel, 'Skin Deep', is a tale of lies, hypocrisy and double standards which twists and turns. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
Liz Nugent's latest novel, 'Skin Deep', is a tale of lies, hypocrisy and double standards which twists and turns. Photo: Colin O'Riordan
The Woman in the Woods by John Connolly
Skin Deep by Liz Nugent

Anne Marie Scanlon

The universality of certain experiences is reflected in the latest works of two Irish authors. Liz Nugent's third novel Skin Deep and John Connolly's The Woman in the Woods, while very different in style and setting, both centre around the disenfranchisement of women in modern society.

Skin Deep's Delia Russell is like a mythical goddess of destruction; beautiful, alluring and leaving a trail of devastation in her wake. However, Delia is no psychopath - ill luck follows her rather than being deliberately perpetrated by her.

At the start of the novel, Delia has killed someone and the reader doesn't know who. Nugent then takes us back to the beginning, to the tiny insular island of Inniscrann where Delia grew up.

Delia's father is a violent man, unnaturally obsessed with his daughter, he tells her stories (scattered throughout the book) with a common theme - that women suffer to make men happy.

When teenage Delia becomes pregnant in the early 1980s, she feels trapped. She doesn't want a baby but the decision isn't hers, instead it's that of three old men - her adoptive father Alan, a devout Catholic (her natural father has died), the boy's father Declan, a hypocrite who sits up the front of the church yet knows far too well how to get an abortion in England, and the local parish priest.

Forced into having a baby she doesn't want, and marrying a husband she doesn't love, Delia finds solace in her new life in England by indulging in Champagne and cocaine with her posh friends.

One of them has no problem telling Delia that all Irish people are 'peasants'. Younger readers might find this shocking while those of us who remember the 1980s and 1990s in London certainly won't.

Delia's looks are marred in a fire and superficially that's what the title refers to. Skin Deep is also about what happens when you scratch the surface of a 'civilised society'. Delia is a product of a culture that valued 'decency' at all costs and actively covered up any and all behaviour that didn't conform to the Catholic ideal. (Similarly Delia's smart friends for all their airs behave disgustingly in private).

Delia is the agent of destruction in this book, but the real culprits are the lies, hypocrisy and double standards she's been forced to live with. On top of that there's a couple of nice, unexpected twists near the end.

Across the Atlantic, John Connolly's detective Charlie Parker returns for his 16th outing in The Woman in the Woods which, like Skin Deep, revolves around the relative powerlessness of women in a supposed age of equality.

In this instance, though, the woman of the title is dead and buried. Her remains have been preserved enough for police to know that she didn't die as a result of a violent act and that she gave birth shortly before dying. But where is the baby? A Star of David marks the grave and lawyer, Moxie Castin, hires Parker to find out what happened to the infant. The search brings Parker into conflict with two very creepy characters - Quail and Mons.

While this is a relatively low-key adventure for Parker - the body count isn't that high and his long-time ally Angel is largely absent due to illness, Quail and Mons are two of the creepiest and disturbing characters Connolly has introduced to date.

Quail is a lawyer, who claims to have lived for centuries, and is searching for a document that will bring about the end of the world as we know it.

His companion Mons is a product of the British care system - carefully "groomed" to become in thrall to Quail and a cold-hearted killer.

The story of the woman in the woods is intrinsically linked to the story of intimate partner violence and the extremes women have to resort to in an effort to escape it.

Connolly also places the rich and the powerful (not always the same thing) under his forensic gaze and takes a pop at the 'great and the good' "who routinely made million-dollar donations to museums and galleries… yet baulked at the prospect of paying a living wage to their workers". As with all the Charlie Parker books, the plot unfolds at a tight pace, leaving it hard to put down.

The characters are all rooted enough in real life, with all of its contradictions and complexities, to make them worth caring for. And, there's a lovely seam of humour that doesn't impinge on the tension; take the poor woman "who claimed to have slipped… at a shopping mall, resulting in a fractured ankle, a dislocated shoulder, and sexual assault by a plastic elf".

Of all the disturbing images Connolly has created over the years, this one encapsulates his talent - unsettling, funny and hard to forget.

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