Book Review: Ordinary Human Failings – Megan Nolan

Posted 12 months ago in Book Review


Megan Nolan’s second novel, Ordinary Human Failings, is a deep excavation of an Irish family living in London, who fled home only to face something much worse – being ‘accused of society’s gravest crime.’ Set in 1990, journalist Tom Hargreaves is presented with an opportunity for his big break when he discovers that a young girl is found dead, and ten-year-old Lucy Green is instantly suspected.

Great mystery surrounds the Greens; Carmel, an aloof young woman who lives with her taciturn father John, disturbed brother Richie, and daughter Lucy. Although the accusation against Lucy serves as the plot’s spine, Tom, like the reader, is eager to uncover the truth about the whole family. Nolan creates a suspenseful read as she delicately releases information throughout. Her fluid narrative flows from perspective to perspective, with sentences of dialogue that melt into one another.

“Nolan successfully entrances her readers by creating a patchwork of despairing characters through her sharp observations of ordinary human failings”

Tom, worthy of Shakespearean evil, falsely orchestrates a refuge for the Greens at Hotel Gargano while Lucy is kept at the police station. He underestimates these ‘peasants’ as he tries to trick them into divulging their secrets – to create the story of his career. Despite Tom’s frothing desperation for one of the Greens to reveal all, he instead is left frustrated with two stern Irish men, both ‘too consumed by their own historical injustices to reveal anything.’

The motif of familial complexities dominates, highlighting how all pain has a seed which, in the Green’s case, was planted many years ago. Nolan knits segments of the family’s history together by delving into a particular period in the past, giving a deeper psychological understanding of their current state. Carmel is portrayed as being despondent but Nolan brings the reader back into the catalyst for her desolation – an unexpected teenage pregnancy in Ireland during the late ‘70s. Up until this point, Carmel has only been described as disinterested in her child and her failure to be a mother. Carmel’s mother Rose, an overwhelmingly selfless character, took on the role as Lucy’s mother and was the martyr of the family before her untimely death. Despite Carmel’s chilling efforts to stop the pregnancy, Rose decided that moving to London was their best option. Although they left, the past followed, exacerbating Richie and John’s alcoholism as they try to numb their saturated layers of trauma and caustic embitterment.

Tom forces alcohol upon each member of the Greens, one by one, as he becomes increasingly desperate for answers. With an unexpected development in the case, Carmel is left seeking redemption as a mother, and reflects on the injustice of life, noting ‘how persistent and absurd and reckless a force it could be.’ In creating a patchwork of despairing characters, Nolan successfully entrances her reader; all through her sharp observations of ordinary human failings.

Words: Aisling Arundel

Ordinary Human Failings

Megan Nolan

[Jonathan Cape]


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