Betty Smith gave simple advice to writers: “First: Be understanding always. Keep the understanding you have and add on to it.” As the author of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1943)—a best-selling novel that challenged the myth of poverty as a choice, and allowed low/no-wage characters to demonstrate courage and perseverance—Smith was always asking “why”.
“There is a reason for the way every person is,” she believed. All of this from Valerie Raleigh Yow’s biography, which I read as part of research this summer, for an essay to be published later this year that revolves around Smith’s novels. It was while working on the final edits, compulsively refreshing the NYTimes page for election results, that I discovered this epigraph to Liz Nugent’s Little Cruelties: “The awful thing in life is, everyone has their reasons.”
This took me straight to some Depeche Mode song lyrics: “People are people so why should it be / You and I should get along so awfully?” All of which is to say that a lot of people, and a lot of the time, wonder about other people’s reasons. From the polarized scene of the American political unrest surrounding the recent election, to holiday dinner tables around the world, so many people are asking the same question: “Who’s the favourite?”
But let me back up just a little, because the first question that Liz Nugent’s readers are asking, is “Who died?” This is Irish writer Liz Nugent’s fourth novel. From the beginning, with her debut Unravelling Olivier (2014), Nugent has been concerned with the harm done in families, whose members are supposed to love one another. She examines situations that could be intimate and moving, but which turn out to be violent, ominous, and irrevocable. Little Cruelties opens at a funeral, where family members are grieving.