Sally Diamond lives on the outskirts of the village of Carricksheedy, Ireland. Peter Geary is living in Rotorua, Aotearoa New Zealand. Sally is in her 40s, she has been living with her father since her mother died when Sally was eighteen. Her father has kept her quite isolated, due to her being “socially deficient”. Peter was 14 when he and his father arrived in Rotorua, his father keeps him isolated for his own good, telling Peter it was because of his rare health condition: “Dad obviously had a kind heart.”
Sally doesn’t like engaging with others, often feigning deafness during her brief trips into the village. It is only when her father dies that the extent of her disconnect with the world becomes apparent. Sally knew that her parents were not her real parents, but after her father’s death she, and the reader, learn of her unconscionable origins. She receives support as well as death threats – “Hell is where you belong” – from the community. The support comes mainly from those who themselves experience prejudice and bigotry.
We read of Peter as a child in Ireland, and his disturbing interactions with “the ghost” in the locked room next to the one he is often confined to. We read with horror the behaviours he picks up from his father – due to his isolation he has no other role models. When he fled Ireland with his father, Peter did start to wonder about his situation, and when in Rotorua he openly questions his father’s misogyny and racial prejudice. However, there is a fair amount of wilful ignorance about Peter, he only finds agency when he discovers just how deceived he has been.
It is hard to write a review of Strange Sally Diamond and not give away any of the ‘reveals’ of the plot – and that would be unforgivable as it is such a gripping experience to read the book without knowing anything about it. As you read, a complex story unfolds. A story of abuse spawning abuse, of men controlling women and children with physical abuse, mental abuse, and drugs, of the awful plight of young children and young women, of unimaginable cruelty. It is also the story of extraordinary patience and kindness.
As enthralling as the plot is, it is the characters that move the story. As you read, it is hard to tell who is attentive to Sally because they are kind and who because they are psychotic. Who is Mark who appears suddenly with an almost unhealthy interest in Sally’s past? And who sends her Toby the teddy bear? And why does she have such a strong reaction to the bear? The character of Sally Diamond is a brilliant creation, with her idiosyncrasies making her both endearing and downright terrifying.
The arc of Sally’s story reminds me of that of Charlie in Daniel Keyes’s Flowers for Algernon. As she progresses, she is funny: “Honestly, between therapy and yoga and learning to caress myself, I’ve enough on my plate.” She starts to flourish: “I liked the faint crinkly lines that came from the corners of my eyes when I smiled at myself. I was beautiful”. She starts to despair: “I finally had someone who was mine. I loved him, I wanted to protect him and keep him to myself. I couldn’t have known what he was capable of.”
Peter’s progression is in a minor key and raises questions about whether a person can be created solely by their experiences. Where do extremely bad, and exceptionally good, abilities come from? Peter is relatable but reprehensible. He is raised to think he is special, and he leans into his privilege while knowing right from wrong: “all three of them came out to play, both in my nightmares and in my waking hours … I could have saved them all.” He has that astonishing ability to assume what someone wants and be amazed when they are not grateful when he provides it, “‘I love you,’ I said as I locked the door behind me.”
There is a section in Strange Sally Diamond when the twists stop, when all is explained and when stories match up, almost – the reader knows when self-interest enters the re-telling of events. It is a puzzling time as you read this section, as though a time bomb is about to go off. There is comfort in thinking all the events are explainable, all originating from specific circumstances. And then the tragic tale picks up again, and the reader wonders once more if that is true – are the characters’ histories really a satisfactory explanation for their behaviour?
Strange Sally Diamond is a great disturbing read that haunts you long after you finish reading. It is sad and awful but also manages to be funny, and the author has some fun with a couple of the surnames in the text. There is a good sense of place in Ireland, London, and in Aotearoa New Zealand, and as the story spans many decades, there is a sense of time as well, with the Covid 19 pandemic featuring towards the end.
Part of the horror of Strange Sally Diamond comes from the duration of the various crimes. They are not crimes of passion; they are a way of life for the perpetrators: “The need for connection could never be satisfied by strangers”. The ending of the novel is exceptional, answering the question of nature versus nurture in a creepy way, by way of a piano and Toby the teddy bear!