Angelena Boden has written one hell of an intense novel. Albeit the settings are principally domestic, and the world of the two central characters, Iain and Una, is comfortably ‘middle class’ and professional, their home, in truth, is a crucible of psychological terror, which too often spills over into violence.
In the earlier stages, the author plays with the reader’s perceptions and expectations, as we are thrown this way then that with regard to who is at fault in this ill-starred marriage. Suffice it to say that in Una (the Irish version of this name being Oonagh, meaning ‘lamb’ – hence the title) the author has created a monster of narcissism and cruelty – seriously damaged goods, who in turn damages all those about her.
I felt at times that Iain was probably suffering some form of Stockholm syndrome, and had been so undermined by the abuse meted out to him by his wife that he began to doubt every aspect of his reality. She frequently “gaslights” him, to the point where he believes her actions to have been his.
Having somewhat looked into the issue of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, the people who may be so diagnosed, and the dreadful effects on those who come into their orbit, Angelena Boden has, to my mind, created the poster child for that particular diagnosis, in Una Carrington. Obsessed with expensive lipstick, domineering and shallow, heartless towards her children, husband, and employees alike, this character is truly terrifying, and makes “Cruelty of the Lambs” compulsive reading on that account.
If all this weren’t bad enough, Iain, a onetime music teacher, has been falsely and maliciously accused of sexual harrassment by a gang of schoolgirls. This has destroyed his career, and threatened the balance of his mind. In this weakened state he is easy prey for his borderline psychopathic wife. Iain’s faithful friend, Fergus, and his calm and wise first wife, Morag (why Iain ever left Morag for Una is really beyond me!) can see all too clearly how Iain is being destroyed, and do all they can to save him. At times, it seems as though it may be too late. When Iain’s beloved (and very expensive) cello is stolen in an apparent burglary, his life truly spirals out of control.
“The Cruelty of Lambs” is exceedingly well written, the prose being both stylish and witty. It also offers a deep understanding of human psychology, and exemplifies starkly how one person may be utterly ground down by another. The reader is tantalised and thrown into confusion at times as to who the ‘bad’ person is in the marriage – this is very artfully done. It is almost as if on reading this novel we, too, have to fight against Una’s uncanny ability to coerce, control, and destabilise; we also become her victim for a time. In short, this story gets under your skin; it disturbs and alarms; it is repellent in places, as depiction of such abuse, both mental and physical, really ought to be.
Una’s background is sketched in, including some possible notions of this being partly inherited behaviour from her own mother, as indeed Una’s and Iain’s daughter, Johanna, is beginning to demonstrate similar traits – and one must hope it is not too late for her to outgrow these.
The theme of music, the healing power thereof, is an important strand in this novel, and is both believable in this context, and adds necessary texture, and necessary beauty amid the emotional carnage.
Angelena Boden has created a cast of characters that are memorable and intricate. The author is also very good at description – cityscapes, domestic interiors, bars, Spanish hotels, you name it – all is achieved with economy and specificity.
I found this a very impressive first novel, both from a writing point of view, and as an interrogation into the psychology of both abuser and abused.