Title: After the Silence (review copy)
Author: Louise O’Neill
Genre/Themes: Mystery, Thriller, Contemporary, Coercive Control
Blurb from Goodreads
Nessa Crowley’s murderer has been protected by silence for ten years.
Until a team of documentary makers decide to find out the truth.
On the day of Henry and Keelin Kinsella’s wild party at their big house a violent storm engulfed the island of Inisrun, cutting it off from the mainland. When morning broke Nessa Crowley’s lifeless body lay in the garden, her last breath silenced by the music and the thunder.
The killer couldn’t have escaped Inisrun, but on-one was charged with the murder. The mystery that surrounded the death of Nessa remained hidden. But the islanders knew who to blame for the crime that changed them forever.
Ten years later a documentary crew arrives, there to lift the lid off the Kinsella’s carefully constructed lives, determined to find evidence that will prove Henry’s guilt and Keelin’s complicity in the murder of beautiful Nessa.
Louise O’Neill is one of my favourite authors. I’ve always enjoyed every book I’ve read by her and was really excited to read ‘After the Silence’ because it claimed to be a murder mystery which is a massive leap away from O’Neill’s previous novels.
But here’s the thing… it wasn’t that much of a leap!
The mystery aspect to the novel was secondary to what this book was really about. It’s a book about domestic abuse in all its hideous guises. And from that standpoint it’s terrific. O’Neill clearly researched carefully and created an utterly compelling storyline primarily focusing on the marriage between main characters Keelin and Henry Kinsella. And true to O’Neill’s style it is very much feminist in tone, and places the stories of women front and centre in the book.
Keelin, and her husband live on a small isolated island off the coast of Ireland. He is a ‘blow in’, a hotel and resort developer and is forever mistrusted by the islanders as his interests are financial and are all about maintaining his rich and powerful status. Keelin, is the native islander that had escaped an abusive marriage with her young son, and returned to the island when Henry took an interest in her and gave her the comfort and security that had been denied to her in her first marriage.
I loved that from the outside Keelin looked to have it all: money, clothes, handsome husband, large house… but how those same materialistic aspects of her life made her an outcast on the island she grew up on. As if she had somehow sold herself out and had lost that native islander status. And this is where the murder mystery aspect comes in to play… on the stormy night of her 37th birthday party a young island girl was found murdered in the Kinsella’s garden, and suspicion is firmly placed on the shoulders of Henry Kinsella and it is believed that Keelin is somehow protecting him.
The novel is set ten years after this unsolved murder when two journalists come to the island to make a documentary about the incident, and the story of the murder unfolds in a mixture of interview pieces flashbacks alongside the current day setting that focuses more on Keelin, and relationships with her husband Henry and now adult children.
What I love about O’Neill’s writing is that she writes brilliantly complex female characters and Keelin Kinsella is no exception. She is a woman that is seemingly moulded by the men in her life as her two marriages have been to controlling men… but there’s so much more nuance to her than that. It’s all too easy to ask why do women stay in toxic and abusive relationships but what O’Neill does is strip away that victim shaming and blaming, and instead gives us a character that is deeply complicated, that is equal parts likeable and unlikeable, and is incredibly strong. Despite the coercive control of her husband you can see the strengths and bravery she has in spades. It’s an absolutely brilliant character study and as a reader I was so moved by all that she had gone through in her life.
However, I was less keen on the murder-mystery aspect of this novel. The murdered girl, Nessa Crowley, felt rather unoriginal in her depiction. She was almost a ‘manic dream pixie’ murder victim with how she was portrayed, and I felt I’d read a number of books in the past that had a similar murder victim narrative. The mystery aspect of the murder also didn’t feel that mysterious, and the big reveal at the end felt rather obvious and heavy handed to me.
This was a pity because I was really eager to read a book that would have me hunting for clues as to ‘whodunnit’ but sadly this wasn’t that kind of read. I would definitely recommend it to people who are more interested in human interest and character stories rather than murder mysteries. Although, outside of Keelin Kinsella, many of the characters felt limp and one dimensional, e.g. the Australian documentary makers were used simply to drive the narrative forward rather than feeling integral to the overall story; Alex, Keelin’s son, was just a plot device to show her motherly instincts; Henry was very much a pantomime villain etc. etc. and I would have preferred a bit more time spent on making the other characters in the novel feel a little less stereotyped.
But my biggest gripe with this novel was the proliferation of the ‘cúpla focail’ throughout the book; the proliferation of many Irish words. I completely get that O’Neill was trying to create a Gaeltacht environment (area of Ireland where Irish is the primary spoken language) on her fictitious island but throwing in an odd Irish word every few paragraphs was not the way to do that in my opinion. More effort should have been placed on building the atmosphere through a few more descriptive passages. Also instead of using random Irish words here and there, which just made the writing feel stilted and forced, O’Neill in my opinion should have chosen to incorporate longer Irish phrases that would have given the prose a more lyrical feel. Every time I read the word ‘stóirín’ I wanted to slap someone! It’s certainly not a word that I’ve ever heard used outside of a few Irish lullabies or ballads I was taught at school, and to me felt entirely affected and lacking in sincere emotion when it was used as a term of endearment. Towards the end of the novel I did note that O’Neill was beginning to use Irish sentences and phrases rather than translating seemingly random words to Irish and it read so much better! I really wish that had been the case throughout the entirety of the novel.
Overall this was a novel of hits and misses. It was a hit when it came to exploring the insidious nature of domestic abuse and how it illustrated that not all domestic abuse is physically violent. But it was a bit of a miss when it came to the murder-mystery aspect as that all felt a bit tired and redundant.
Not my favourite of O’Neill’s novels but still well worth a read.
*An e-copy of this book was kindly provided to me by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review*
Publishing 3rd September 2020, Riverrun/Quercus