‘Strange Sally Diamond’ by Liz Nugent – highly recommended.

I know it’s not yet May but I’m fairly certain that Strange Sally Diamond will be on my 2023 Best Reads list. It’s a startlingly different book. The narrative dragged my imagination after it from the first page, keeping me off balance and constantly surprising me, not by using clever plot twists that might as well have GOTCHA! sprayed across them in neon paint, but by taking me deeper into the minds of the characters and helping me understand just how different and how broken they were.

This book manages to be both compelling and deeply disturbing. It has one of the strangest openings I’ve ever read:

‘Put me out with the bins’ he said regularly. ‘When I die, put me out with the bins. I’ll be dead, so I won’t know any different. You’ll be crying your eyes out,’ and he would laugh and I’d laugh too because we both knew that I wouldn’t be crying my eyes out. I never cry.

When the time came, on Wednesday 29th November 2017, I followed his instructions. He was small and frail and eighty-two years old by then, so it was easy to get him into one large garden waste bag. 

I read this and I thought, ‘I know what this is. She’s neurodivergent and socially isolated so she sees things differently from the rest of us. Maybe this is going to be one of those neurodivergent woman overcomes it all novels like Rain Reign or When We Were Vikings or The Seven Imperfect Rules Of Elvira Carr.’

I was right about the neurodivergent part but wrong about the rest. This was a much darker tale than any of the other books I’ve read. This is a tale born of blood and pain and hate. That kind of damage can’t be overcome or undone or redeemed, only endured.

Sally Diamond is indeed strange. She knows that. It’s not something that she can change and it’s not something she wants to make a fuss about. She just wants to get on and she wants people to leave her alone.

She’s an Irish woman, who is in her forties when she puts her recently deceased octogenarian father out with the bins, as he had often requested her to do.

At the start of the book, I quickly found my thinking aligning with Sally’s so that it seemed it was the expectations of the rest of the world and not Sally’s behaviour that was the source of the problem. I could immediately see that if her father had put OPEN IMMEDIATELY AFTER MY DEATH rather than READ AFTER MY DEATH on the large brown envelope containing instructions on who to contact and what to do, a great deal of upset might have been avoided.

It was only as the book progressed and the cast of characters widened that I realised just how little of Sally’s world I understood. Her father was not her biological father but a psychologist who had been treating her when she was first discovered by the world and who adopted her. The more I learned about him, the less I liked him and the more I distrusted both his motives and his methods. Sally, on the other hand, loved him.

The tale of how Sally came to be discovered by the world and to be in need of psychiatric treatment is a very dark and disturbing one, made more so because the way the story is told shows how possible and plausible the evil that it describes was.

What happened to Sally was terrible. What happened afterwards was also terrible only in a more mainstream, accepted by everyone as normal back then kind of way.

The story is told from two points of view on two timelines that eventually converge. The contemporary timeline is told from Sally’s point of view. The historical timeline is told from the point of view of a young boy being raised in isolation by his father. Much of the narrative is spent discovering who these two are to one another and how the boy’s history has shaped Sally’s present.

If it was mandatory for books to provide trigger warnings on the first page after the title, ‘Strange Sally Diamond’ would have a long list: abduction, rape, child abuse, abuse of power, misogyny, violence, torture and psychological abuse would all have to be included.

None of these things is there to thrill or entertain or to build up psychological pressure. They are there as truths to be confronted and dealt with. They are there because they explain Sally Diamond’s strangeness although they do not define Sally Diamond.

This is a deeply disturbing story that is more truthful than hopeful. It is dark but credible. It looks not at how we make the darkness go away but how we live with what it has done to us. None of the answers are comfortable ones and some of the outcomes are very dark.

By the end of the book, my thinking was aligned with Sally Diamond’s again. She is who she is and if that’s a problem then it isn’t in truth her problem.

So this wasn’t a neurodivergent woman overcomes it all novel, although Sally certainly tried. There may not be a triumph at the end of this book but there is an understanding that not everything can be fixed and that broken things still have worth, especially to the people who are broken.

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