“The Tangle Box” is the name Dan O’Neill’s sister Maria gives to the house and village where they grew up, largely in fear of their alcoholic mother’s moods. Their father ineffectually tried to soften the blows, but his role was that of an enabler, making excuses for his wife’s behaviour. Dan wry observes, “I blame my parents for what we suffered, but try to understand the cause. When you’re a child, you believe you deserve the things you experience, the good and the bad. But as I grew older, I understood that no child deserves neglect or mistreatment.” This isn’t a pity party though. Dan knows he has to understand his past to give himself a future.
The book starts with a middle-aged Dan adjusting to life after a lengthy and not yet complete rehabilitation from serious injuries. He still walks with a crutch and post-operative scars from a fall that could have been fatal. His life is a studio flat and warehouse job in Dublin. He has not seen his sister since she and his mother left the house they grew up in while Dan was still a teenager. Maria sends him a letter confirming she is still alive and recommends her friend Cathryn, a therapist, who will help him. Dan is caught between wanting to see his sister again but dreading uncovering things he’d prefer to keep hidden, not being able to fully remember what lies in the murky depths of the tangle box. Readers suspect his self-deprecation is a defence mechanism and he’s more likeable than he thinks he is. His determination to see his troubles through and emerge into a future is engaging and keeps readers rooting for him.
Cathryn agrees to help him. She does so not as a therapist but as Maria’s friend, a sounding board for Dan to work through his memories and fears. Dan is not just looking back to his childhood but his early adulthood, the sense of not belonging and screwing up his first love. Cathryn is a very handy plot device, a listener to Dan’s story, her therapist’s habit of asking the right questions useful prompts for Dan to keep going. But she’s also more than that and readers get to see Cathryn’s life as she juggles work, a teenage daughter and a troubled marriage.to a local newsreader.
Dan visits his childhood house – it’s not a home – where the landscape and details of house mirror his journey. The overgrown brambles, rust and remnants of a decaying farm pave the way to the neglected house. Details mount up, the shattered pane of glass which his father fixed by adding an extra pane either side rather than replacing shows how Dan’s father was in denial, ineffectually patching things up rather than mending them or protecting his children. Did Maria need the reminder that the glass was shattered when her mother threw a knife at her? The interior’s worse: what furniture is left is beyond repair, spiders have moved in and something is moving around in the attic. The revelations accumulate as Dan moves through the house. He remembers one incident:
“Maria still stood on the bloodstone, her fist clenching and unclenching. Her face was bone white, her eyes squeezed shut.
“’What did you want?’ Ma asked.
“Da stopped at the door, his back to her.
“’Look what happens when they live!’ Ma’s laugh was spiteful.
“’No, Caroline,’ He begged her not to go on, but she did.”
Caroline drowned her disappointment in drink and lashed out at those who couldn’t fight back. She never wanted children. Knowing her surviving children are watching, she drinks for the courage to decide what to do about another unwanted pregnancy.
Dan has inherited his mother’s alcoholism. After moving to England at the age of 18, he took a job in a bar. Missed school (a red flag no one in the school or village did anything about), meant no qualifications and a bullied child doesn’t grow into a confident adult. Although a functioning alcoholic, he knows he has to stop. He manages it until he meets Abbey where he spends most of the relationship not believing his luck. Abbey is studying for a masters degree and Dan gets the only job he knows how to do: bar work. Appeals to him to stop drinking don’t work. He comes home from work and discovers she’s moved out. Drinking spirals him into homelessness but a chance encounter offers Dan a job. But an incident with drunken yobs takes the opportunity away and Dan returns to Dublin where he has his near fatal fall.
Dan’s determination to understand his past to give himself another chance at a future means the novel doesn’t become one depressing and dismal shock after another. He knows he has to untangle the box before he can be reunited with his sister. Cathryn guides and prompts, but Dan works at his pace and is in control of his actions and understanding. The horrors are handled sensitively. The story carries its own tension without ramping up the terror for the sake of shocking the reader. The bravest thing both Dan and Maria have achieved is breaking the cycle of abuse.
In “The Tangle Box”, Dave Kavanagh has created a memorable story with compelling characters who carry the reader’s empathy as they try to unravel the past, knowing this is the best way of forging a new future. The tangles are unravelled at a credible, natural pace. The terrors are organic, growing from the story, and not thrown in for gratuitous shock-value. Dan and Maria are fully rounded characters overcoming their trouble pasts. Their parents are not one-dimensional stereotypes of bad parenting: their stories too have shaped them into the people they became. Dan is generous in his attempts to understand them while acknowledging that doesn’t condone or excuse their behaviour as parents. Dan resolves the puzzle of the tangle box through his own agency. In doing so, he uncovers what happened to his mother and what caused his near-fatal fall. It’s a chilling story that lingers long after the book is closed.
Emma Lee’s The Significance of a Dress is available from Arachne Press. The link also has a trailer featuring the title poems and samples of some of the poems from the collection. It is also available as an eBook.