Ollie Always is a complex, character driven novel, and John Wiltshire’s writing is crisp, accurate, and full of observational humour and ‘snark’. The setting in New Zealand is described beautifully, if not always affectionately. There is a definite sense of an Englishman abroad, maybe because our eponymous is hero is just that.
Oliver is named after a famous character in his mother’s books. Since he was young, Oliver has referred to himself as ‘Ollie’ in an attempt to differentiate, mentally and physically, between himself and the fictional Oliver. He has been raised in a world of seemingly amoral affluence and influence, always in the shadow of the books that funded this lifestyle. The adults that have passed through Ollie’s life seem to have had difficulty differentiating fact from fiction as well, sometimes with terrible consequences for him when very young. Ollie grows up unsure whether his life mirrors his mother’s books or whether the reverse is true. There is also a sense that the author uses the mother’s books, which unfortunately include paedophilia, as a commentary on m/m romance as a whole.
The fictional Oliver is gay, which compounds Ollie’s identity problems. Ollie strives to break away from the Oliver character by claiming he is straight. The twist is that Ollie is gay and knows it. At this point in his life Ollie is cynical, jaded, unhappy, lonely – and in the closet – in an attempt to escape Oliver.
The novel starts with Ollie living in a remote beach house, near Dunedin in New Zealand. He has travelled this far in an attempt to leave behind his mother, the character of Oliver, and a recent, horrific life event. Ostensibly there to write a book, Ollie can’t even decide upon a title and he spends his days watching cat videos on You Tube. Enter Tom (Skint) a lithe, fit man – who resembles the model David Gandy – running past his house at the same time every day. Ollie is a malnourished sugar-addict who hates any form of physical activity, but he becomes very interested in the handsome runner and contrives a meeting. The meeting doesn’t go quite as planned, but it is the start of the novel proper, and of Tom and Ollie’s journey.
After much double-talk, Tom persuades Ollie to take steps to kick his sugar addiction and to get fitter. Tom was in the army and helped rehabilitate injured soldiers, so he applies the same regime to Ollie. This relationship seems to be beneficial to both men, but they each have secrets and hidden motives. Just when life seems to be improving for Ollie, his mother arrives in New Zealand with her entourage, and bids Ollie set up the large house in Queensland ready for her arrival…
As I said, this is a character driven piece and I can’t really detail the scenes and events without revealing much that would spoil the novel for the reader. This is a romance, but more it is about regaining a sense of self, the importance of identity, and of breaking away from childhood by learning the truth. In a way it is a ‘psychological romance’ – although the lesson could also be ‘home is where the heart is’. Ollie is very intelligent, but borders on mentally unstable. He has an arrogance about him that I found jarring, although I feel some of that quality comes from the authorial voice, rather than being a facet of the character. It did make Ollie hard to like until the very end.
It was obvious from the beginning that Tom isn’t exactly what he seems, but he is the more likeable character. Yet when the truths finally emerge, Tom seems to devolve into a weaker person, and is portrayed somehow as less intelligent and intuitive than previously. His desire to make his way in life on his own initially seems noble, but towards the end comes across as slightly ridiculous. The last chapters of the book hold the truths, twists and plot resolutions, but the HEA depends upon Ollie’s complete manipulation of Tom and his emotions. I did like Ollie more by this point, but even so, saying to yourself, – “oh dear I’m being very manipulative” – does not make it right, however sweet the ending.
There is a lot of banter and humour in Ollie Always, and it is an intriguing novel, if somewhat disturbing in parts. The story is told from Ollie’s POV, and because he is an unreliable narrator, his narrative voice misleads the reader as much it as reveals the plot.In spite of the small reservations I have expressed, I nonetheless thoroughly recommendOllie Always. It’s an intriguing read and is already in my re-read folder.