Jan/Feb 2023  •   Reviews & Interviews

There's been a Little Incident

Review by Ann Skea

There's been a Little Incident.
Alice Ryan.
Bloomsbury. 2022. 432 pp.
ISBN 978 1 8032 8408 8.

Molly Black had disappeared... That's why the whole Black clan—from Granny all the way to Killan on Zoom from Sydney—is huddled together in the back room of Uncle John’s semi-D in the Dublin suburbs, arguing about what to do.

Molly, it seems, has made a habit of disappearing ever since her parents died, but she is now nearly 30 years old, and as her aunt, "Lady V," sees it, it "wasn't normal for an entire family to lose their minds" because she has gone away "for a few days," even if she did leave a note saying this time "it was for good."

Nevertheless, all 13 members of the Black family, plus Killan on Zoom, are, when we first meet them, "squeezed in on top of each other," sprawled on the floor, perched on each other's knees, "luxuriating" in an armchair ("Lady V in her exercise gear") or sitting, like Granny, on the fax machine, as Uncle John, "wearing a strange pair of military boots for the operation," outlines the problem. This, as the narrator, lovingly tells us, is a family made up of "new-age hippies, religious nuts, alcoholics, former shoe-salesmen, delinquent youths and Sudoku enthusiasts [Granny]"; and meeting them for the first time is funny but confusing.

One of Uncle John's first demands of the family is they share the last text messages they had exchanged with Molly. These become brief chapters early in the book, and each fills out the picture we have of the family and of Molly. In separate chapters, too, as the search goes on, we meet each member of the family, hear their thoughts, and learn about their own problems. We also get to know Molly better. As our narrator tells us:

Molly had a connection to each of us, but, more than that, she brought us all together—for good reasons and bad. Molly Black was like electricity—sometimes she lit up the world. Sometimes she electrocuted you.

Uncle John, who has acted as Molly's guardian and protector since the death of her parents, clearly needs to find her and know she does not need to be rescued, as has always been the case in earlier "incidents." The discovery she has been seen in Bangkok only deepens his concern. He "knew all about Bangkok" and immediately rallied the family to go there and find her. Molly's cousin Anne, remembers his preparation speech in which...

...he had painted a vivid and scarring picture of sex-trafficking, modern slavery, poverty and drugs... a den of iniquity which could only be prepared for by watching the darkest parts of The Deer Hunter.

His description was so clear, Anne's mother (the "religious nut" of the family) "had passed out at the image."

The narrator's wry account of all this is often very funny, but beyond getting to know the family and its individual members, there is the serious story of Molly's closeness to her vibrant and unusual actress mother, Annabelle, and the terrible grief she has been suffering since Annabelle's death in a freak accident. Molly is grieving, too, for the separation from her closest childhood friend (just called "B") who has moved in with Jeff, a "financial wizard," with whom he has fallen in love:

Molly thought about grief like a cut. When you accidentally grazed your finger with the knife there was a moment of grace where no blood emerged. All was white and looked like you had made it out OK. But when Molly stayed still, the blood began to rise to the top of her finger. Grief was always coming for her. Waiting until she couldn't move. Until there was nowhere to hide... So she ran.

Now, however, Molly has found a way of living that helps her to stop running and deal with her grief, but until the family find her, they don't know this.

Woven into the search for Molly is a second disappearance: that of a young Irish nurse, Sheena, who had been working in London, and according to the London police, may have been seen by Molly just before they both disappeared. I did find Sheena's story a distraction and wanted to skip ahead to solve that mystery, but it is eventually woven neatly into the family's lives.

The family, because of their experiences on the search and when they eventually find Molly, share some of the changes this has brought to her life. Everything works out in the end, for everyone, and the mystery of Sheena's disappearance is finally solved.

This is, perhaps, a little too tidy and happy an ending, but Alice Ryan handles it well. Only the sudden introduction of the posthumous voice of Annabelle felt, to me, to be too contrived. However, this is a first novel by an accomplished story-teller; and it is a remarkable exploration of grief and the power and mixed-blessings of being part of a close-knit family. Its hopeful message is spelled out towards the end by Molly's reformed alcoholic Uncle Danny: "With a bit of luck, no matter how lost you get, it is possible to find yourself again."


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