Home Reviews There’s Something I Have to Tell You—the dark underbelly of family life

There’s Something I Have to Tell You—the dark underbelly of family life

There’s Something I Have to Tell You|Michelle McDonagh|Hachette

There’s Something I Have to Tell You, by Michelle McDonagh—the dark underbelly of family life

by Catherine Murphy

Steeped in rural Irish life with a lived truth, There’s Something I Have to Tell You, by Michelle McDonagh is, on the surface, about death: two bodies found in the slurry pit, and another mentioned loss from the past. But as the story goes on, it’s not about how these people died, but how they have lived.

When we first meet the Kennedy family it is without any kind of comfortable gauze hiding their personalities. They’re unhappy. They’re bitter. They’re angry. Only Jimmy, the older man with a recent diagnosis of dementia, seems to see life in anything other than the frustrated, damaged dynamic that runs through the rest of the group.

Jimmy’s wife, Ursula, runs their house, their property and the business, with a steel glove, unburdened by any kindness or love. A matriarch who uses her power to rule everyone’s lives, she’s not even remotely likeable, and when her body turns up in the slurry tank with Jimmy’s, it’s more a case of which one of the others were finally pushed to do the bad, bad thing…

The story switches between Jimmy and Ursula, and Christina, their daughter, Rob, their son, and Kate, Rob’s wife. Each chapter is clearly set in the different minds of the characters and labelled in the time it’s placed, before or after the deaths of Ursula and Jimmy. As the guards are preoccupied with trying to figure out who killed the older couple, or if indeed they were murdered, the rest of the cast are trying to piece together their lives.

Rob is tired. There’s little connection now with the wife he once adored – he refers to their children as ‘her babies’. He is lost, and he’s not been there for Kate. He’s let the home situation grow toxic, without standing up to his mother. He trusted his family over the needs of his wife, until it was too late.

Kate is angry – and fairly so – but she has allowed that anger to fester between them and, again, the problems all seem to stem from Ursula. Kate snipes at everyone, but she’s worried. She’s bringing up two children and she’s trying to hold together a situation that’s rapidly falling apart. But as the book grows so does her friendship with Rob, and it’s a relief to read that even in the mess of what is happening, they start to find one another.

Christina, Rob’s sister, is the stand out character. For the reader, she’s the harmony, the calm. Messed up and broken and not very well, she’s more fragile than the others know, but she’s also a great deal stronger than they realise.

‘…a girl in a woman’s skin…’

The emotions come from the rest of the family but the story, plucked and ripped from the past and the present, comes from Christina. The reader will desperately will her on, needing her to figure out what she knows, right up to the very end. 

The earlier-read kindness and sweetness in Jimmy is reflected well in Christina and the few moments of them together in the glimpses of her past, now shine against the disturbing darkness with the others. 

But that’s the thing about families – the ‘ideal home’ family doesn’t exist. The two-kids-with-presents-under-the-tree dream is rarely the whole picture, and with There’s Something I Have to Tell You, it’s not the comfortable side of family life that’s being picked apart, but the nasty underbelly – the pain that runs riot with such narcissistic personalities.

If you enjoyed Smother on RTÉ recently, and Liz Nugent’s close-knit gripping crimes, then this is one is for you.

Catherine Murphy