Saturday 18 November 2017

No escape when the dark past comes calling

The Other Boy Yvonne Cassidy (Hachette Ireland, €13.99)

Our lives are a series of narratives, stories we tell the people around us in a bid to explain who we are.

Past actions, present situations and future hopes all take on a narrative form; relationships are personal romance novels with beginnings, middles and ends. And the most intricately plotted and convincing of these stories are surely the ones we tell ourselves.

Irish author Yvonne Cassidy's debut novel, billed as a psychological thriller but in reality straddling a number of genres, plays with this idea of identity as a narrative construction.

JP Whelan has severed all ties with his Dublin childhood and carved out a comfortable existence for himself in London. On the cusp of an important promotion at the financial firm he works for in the City, and about to become a father with girlfriend Katie, life seems to be going well for him. But when an unexpected visitor turns up at his door the night his daughter is born, his cosy existence is plunged into chaos and the various narratives of his life start to unravel, exposing the dark past he thought he had left behind.

In JP's brother Dessie, just released from a stint behind bars, Cassidy has created a wonderfully dark and menacing figure who fills the reader with dread each time he appears. But his role in the story is much more complex: Dessie represents the past, and his conflicting version of events forces the reader to question the memory and reliability of our narrator, an increasingly rattled JP.

Or is it John Paul? In the London chapter of his life, people call him JP, because, as Dessie puts it, "John-Paul doesn't sound flashy enough for a high-flyer like you". This confusion mirrors JP's own identity crisis: "Johnny, John-Paul, JP. Sometimes Katie liked to call me Jay. How could I be just be one person with so many names?"

Slowly, the traumatic secret from JP's childhood is revealed and the truth of his dysfunctional upbringing laid bare as the novel moves back and forth from contemporary London to Dublin circa 1980. But as the tense drama between the brothers is played out, the lines between truth and lies, good and bad, light and dark become increasingly blurred, culminating in a violent and shocking act.

Cassidy does not provide the reader with any easy answers in this sinister story. The truth is to be found somewhere in the cracks and in-between spaces within each brother's narrative. It is ultimately left up to the reader to make sense of this on their own, to construct our own narrative to explain what has gone on.

"It doesn't all fit into some neat little box -- my story," JP tells us. "If you really want to know the truth, you're going to have to find out for yourself. Because, even now, I'm not sure what the truth is."

In contrast to the wonderfully drawn Dessie, the main character of JP proves problematic.

Early on in the novel it's difficult not to feel as if you are reading chick-lit with a guy as the main character, and it proves hard to forget that the author is not the same sex as her protagonist. But the issue fades as the drama unfolds and the book moves more firmly into the territory of psychological drama and establishes itself as definitively a thriller in genre.

As a debut novel, this cannot fail to impress. Intelligent and tautly written, if at first it confuses and fails to grab it is when the pace picks up and the tension heightens that The Other Boy truly comes into its own.

Irish Independent

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