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.

What readers know from the outset is that there are three brothers in this family and one of the brothers is in the coffin. This is presented in a brief italicized narrative, designed to maintain secrecy about which brother is being buried. This teasing repeats, two more times, acting as a herald to one brother’s stories: first—William, then—Luke, and, finally—Brian. “All three of the Drumm brothers were at the funeral, although one of us was in a coffin.” (These are short, so readers who object to first-person-plural narratives needn’t trouble to twist up their knickers.)

Within each brother’s narrative, time shifts; readers travel back in the characters’ memories to their childhoods (in the 1970s) and up to 2016, the years clearly marked to clarify the buckshot chronology. All of the brothers are struggling in some way, and their most serious challenges serve as quick identifiers (e.g. addiction, depression, infidelity, anger, unrequited love—I’m naming a few, so that it’s less spoilery) so that they do not blur.

What becomes a blur, however, is the overwhelming sorrow and anger. Every family member has experiences which link back to this theme, sometimes in events which occur with neighbours or co-workers, sometimes in events with more distant family, sometimes in events within the Drumm family household.

Within each brother’s perspective, it’s like this: “I had been living in my own bubble for so long that I was barely aware of anything that went on outside the span of my own two arms.”

Between each brother’s perspective, there are some moments at which their experiences converge, like this: “We did not have the vocabulary then to articulate what we had always felt but somehow, from that day on, knew. That we were loved more.”

But the most curious parts of the stories exist in the crevasses: “[He] never said anything on these occasions, even when it was decades behind us. We all knew the experience had scarred him deeply, but it was one of our family’s little cruelties to revisit it, often.”

In this short video, the author reveals that her idea for one of the characters in Little Cruelties came from the video of Nina Simone at a notorious performance of “Stars” at the Montreux Festival in 1976 (it’s also featured in the terrific documentary “What Happened, Miss Simone?”); she said that it brought a character to mind and she pursued that character’s voice in Little Cruelties.

My final question for Liz Nugent is “Which one?” Because there are so many fractured psyches, so many small cruelties that it’s hard to track. And even though readers learn which characters have other characters as their favourites, even the chosen ones are sad and angry (or become so, over time). What I longed for was a stylistic change within the trio of voices—their stories and personalities are distinct, but the narrative voice doesn’t alter—but that didn’t deter me from barreling towards the resolution, towards their reasons.