All reviews are of the original 1989 edition.
“Brilliantly disturbing; and disturbingly brilliant” Victoria Glendinning
“O’Neill plays an absorbing, fiendishly skilful game with the reader” City Limits
“A vigorous talent” ... “Sprawling and slapdash” Sunday Times (you takes your pick ... )
“A powerful and compelling story of obsession” Oxford Times
“The characters in Disturbance are trapped in ‘some sort of meantime’; let us hope that the author manages to escape the black hole he has created for himself.” Times Literary Supplement
(Gives a reasonable synopsis, this one.)
City Limits, London, March, 1989
We begin with one from the Wasp Factory, that production line for weird and twisted first novels. Like Iain Banks’ novel, Jamie O’Neill’s Disturbance concerns another deranged teenager living with a loopy dad. His father, holed up in their decaying Irish home, is apparently given to imbibing brandy, devouring large quantities of garlic and lecturing his son on reproduction, religion and languages: clear parallels here with Banks’ novel. Banks stayed closer to the horror/thriller genre, whereas O’Neill leads us into the sinister curiosity shop of the unconscious.
The self-named narrator Nilus (fractured Latin) lost his mother when he was 14 and since her death has played obsessively with an enormous matt-black jigsaw, its orderly perfection being for him an image of his loss. The book has an hallucinogenic, off-centre quality and Nilus’ conversations with family members have a surreal inconsequence that is both familiar and parodic. Slowly, very cleverly, O’Neill leads us into suspecting the validity of Nilus’ perceptions, until the full extent of their disorder is revealed in a gothic denoument. Through the character of poor Nilus, O’Neill plays an absorbing, fiendishly skilful game with the reader, who has to assemble clues much as Nilus assembles his jigsaw. “Post puerum sedet atra Cura ... nil sperandum”.
Sunday Times, UK, March, 1989
“Piecing heartbreak together.” – reviewed by Claire Boylan
Jamie O’Neill’s first novel has a cluttered narrative that is at odds with the substance of his tale.
The story concerns a teenage boy, Nilus Moore, alienated by the death of his small-minded, meticulous mother. His mourning takes the form of an obsession with order. He has completed a 50,000-piece jigsaw, all in black, and cannot sleep without inspecting the folds of his sheets. In spite of his efforts at organisation, strange things happen around him. The street where he lives is demolished by his uncle, leaving only his house standing. A group of local weirdos come to live in his home. Then there is the awful pong, which just gets worse and worse, and can scarcely be explained away by the garlic bulbs so optimistically chewed by his dying father.
Like most comedies, the story is about grief and the peculiar people we choose to love and the appalling effect of their loss. The mourning of children, with its absence of squeamishness or proper form can be vivid territory for the novelist. But in Disturbance, the anecdotes never quite touch the nerve. The pain is missing and only the oddness emerges The writing is sprawling and sometimes slapdash, giving a bumpy ride to a theme that requires a spare and disciplined prose.
A satisfying shocker of an ending and a witty appreciation of the macabre is evidence of a vigorous talent for the future; but the overall effect of the novel is of a rambling joke which scarcely merits its splendid punchline.
There's a joke in this, because a Fontana/Collins paperback of Disturbance, published 1990, but never so far as I know on public sale, had two ‘rave’ quotes from this review on its cover: ‘a vigorous talent – Clare Boylan’, and ‘A witty appreciation of the macabre ... a satisfying shocker – Sunday Times’. Oh, the wonderful craft of blurbing. JO’N.
Oxford Times, UK, March, 1989
In Disturbance (Weidenfeld & Nicolson £10.95) Jamie O’neill has written a powerful and compelling story of obsession, Nilus Moore, a young irish boy seems, on the surface, to be calm and ordered. His mind, however, is far from settled and its obssessive tendencies find focus in his private game of “Disturbance”, a game based on the symmetrical neatness of a fifty thousand piece matt-black jigsaw. Nilus likes everything, like his jigsaw, to be ordered and under control, not a piece out of place.
Life is not always like that though, particularly in an environment such as his, and Nilus, susceptible to what he calls “Brainchill” sometimes finds it difficult to cope. Jamie O’Neill gives a convincing, compassionate portrait of a mind in disarray yet, given the macabre content, it is to his credit that much of the novel manages to be humorous.
Times Literary Supplement, UK, March, 1989
“Some sort of meantime” – reviewed by Anne-Marie Conway
Dominating Jamie O’Neill’s first novel is the matt-black perfection of Nilus’s 50,000-piece jigsaw, symbol both of his mother’s death (it was completed the day she died) and of the order its adolescent hero is so desperate to impose on an increasingly chaotic world.
Left alone with the boy, Nilus’s father gives free rein to his short-lived but passionate enthusiasms: one week they’re practising Italian vocabulary, the next it’s all early morning mass and the rosary in the evening; a brief flirtation with Freud provokes a period of exaggerated physical openness but fails to establish any real communication with the distant and fastidious fourteen-year-old. Meanwhile the family home is sliding into dereliction, plaster falling from the ceiling as the surrounding cottages are razed by Nilus’s developer uncle and the family firm closes its doors for the last time. Despite a succession of strokes, Nilus’s father refuses the offer of somewhere more comfortable, preferring instead to fill the house with a strange assortment of human derelicts – a blind accordion-player, a defrocked priest, a gypsy-like housekeeper to share his bed.
The boy retreats into obsessive orderliness, and begins, also, to cut school, preferring the privacy of his room with its shrine to his beautiful mother. Above all, there is his jigsaw – “the most beautiful object I could ever hope to own”. And yet he finds himself driven to tampering with its awesome perfection, snatching a handful of pieces from one corner, then feverishly replacing them. “Disturbance” is the dominant theme.
More disturbing to the reader, however, is the gradual realization, even as the comic observation begins to fade, that Nilus as narrator is every bit as “unreliable” (his word) as his father. Surely even the most insensitive of do-gooders would not introduce to his home a man sacked for interfering with his son? And why does his father refuse to see anyone but Nilus? Even Nilus begins to doubt his own account, as each of his memories is called into question.
There are hints that the author may be attempting some comment on the state of modern Ireland – the old folk-tales about “the hedge priests and the blind bards and the old ridden hag who comes to young Irish poets in their dreams” have been subverted, with only the developer’s vulgar improvements and the patriot’s impenetrable Marxist cliches in their place – but if so the message has been lost on the journey. O’Neill does have a certain comic gift but as the novel and its narrator descend into insanity this is quickly dissipated, and the attempt at surrealism is no more convincing than the exploration of the disordered mind. The characters in Disturbance are trapped in “some sort of meantime”; let us hope that the author manages to escape the black hole he has created for himself.