Yes, the eponymous protagonist of Liz Nugent’s new crime mystery, Strange Sally Diamond, is strange. And for good reason. Like Nita Prose’s The Maid (another excellent book), this is a protagonist with some unspecified cognitive difference, and in both books it is interesting to see how the authors create a consistent and believable character who processes information in a quirky way.
Sally lives a mile outside a small village in Ireland’s sparsely populated Roscommon County. Alone with her father since her Mum’s death, Sally is in her early forties and has become her father’s caretaker. She’s not one bit social, but because of his illness, she’s had to go into the village to do errands and buy groceries. She keeps her interactions with the villagers to a minimum by pretending to be deaf.
When her Dad dies, she takes literally his jocular advice, ‘Just put me out with the bins,’ and attempts to cremate him in an incinerator barrel. To Sally’s surprise, this brings the police and the media and the merely curious to her door. Sally’s chance to keep others out of her life are now zero. She is constantly learning and fine-tuning how to relate to all of them. No real-life experience has taught her there should be a funeral and that backyard cremation wouldn’t go. When others arrange a funeral, she wears a red-sequined beret, because Dad said it was “for special occasions.”
Sally’s steep learning curve may make you think about the demands of society differently. How much we take for granted in our relations with other people and the world around us!
Sally’s biological mother, Denise Norton, was kidnapped at age eleven and held captive for almost sixteen years by a misogynistic psychopath named Conor Geary. By doling out devastating new revelations about this experience and its tragic aftermath, chapter by chapter, Nugent keeps the story tension high. It’s a fine, well-paced piece of storytelling.
Denise was finally found (thanks to a burglar) with a young daughter—Sally—and their captor fled. Under psychiatric care, Denise committed suicide. The people Sally first thought of as ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ were the physician and psychiatrist who cared for her and Denise. At first their adopting her seems a kindness, but I found the psychiatrist father to be every bit as controlling as Conor Geary, at least in a psychological sense. That need for control, who has it, who doesn’t, is a powerful theme here. And Sally isn’t the only child who was affected.
Nugent writes with sincere compassion for the lives warped by Geary—not just his kidnap victims but their children, their siblings left behind, and the parents who never knew what happened to them. Although Strange Sally Diamond is a smooth read, one that propels you forward, it offers a lot to think about, and it won’t leave you quickly.
I find it unsettling, just reading your terrific review.