Book review: Tell Me What I Am by Una Mannion

Friday, May 17, 2024 Permalink

I actually first read Tell Me What I Am by Una Mannion in 2023. I didn’t review it immediately and recently found the draft I’d written. I recall overthinking it a little, which is something that often prevents me putting fingertips to keyboard. And then too much time had passed. I knew I’d enjoyed it – though ‘enjoy’ seems to be the wrong word to use in a book like this, but it pulled me in and buried me deep. I recently watched The Marsh King’s Daughter (on Prime) based on a book I’d read and was reminded of this… and others similarly themed.

Book review: Tell Me What I Am by Una MannionTell Me What I Am
by Una Mannion
Published by Faber & Faber
on 02/06/2024
Source: NetGalley
Genres: Thriller / Suspense, Psychological Thriller
ISBN: 0571358772
Pages: 320

Deena's daughter (Ruby) grows up in the country. She learns how to hunt, when to seed the garden, how to avoid making her father angry. Never to ask about her absent mother.

Deena's sister (Nessa) stays stuck in the city, getting desperate. She knows the man responsible for her sister's disappearance, but she can't prove it. Not yet.

Over fourteen years, four hundred miles apart, these two women slowly begin to unearth the secrets and lies at the heart of their family, and the history of power and control that has shaped them both in such different ways.But can they reach each other in time? And will the truth finally answer the question of their lives:

What really happened to Deena Garvey?

It took me a little while to get used to the movement in time here. We go back and forth between (at least) three time periods and sometimes I found myself enjoying the present (such as the years when Ruby was growing up) and then I was taken back in time, interrupting the flow of Ruby’s story.

But the past is important. All important. All three timelines are – however – powerful. Ruby’s aunt Nessa is our narrator in the past (and some of the present). We learn she was with her sister Deena when she meets Lucas. Immediately she’s smitten…

I can see the shadow of myself moving through the events of my life up until that night, but I also see the dissolve, how some other element engulfs me, is chemically disintegrating me, is burning me up. p 102

Soon the pair marry and then along comes Ruby. But by then Deena’s been isolated from her family who don’t like Lucas and the hold he seems to have over her. Eventually Deena runs from Lucas and returns to Nessa’s with Ruby. Lucas has weekend visits with his daughter… but then Deena disappears and Ruby is returned to Lucas who moves the pair to his mother’s house in rural Vermont and refuses all contact with Deena’s family.

The present actually spans quite a bit of time and is told through Ruby’s eyes and I found myself fully immersed in her world. It’s tempting to say it’s a coming of age story, rather it’s a coming of wisdom story. Of burgeoning understanding and realisation. As Lucas, the father she worships, becomes tarnished. Of course more so when the past catches up with Lucas and Ruby.

In some ways it’s unfathomable that Ruby waits so long to search for answers… here googling her mother’s name when neither Lucas nor his mother Clover share details of Ruby’s early years. It’s only then that she realises there’s a lot she doesn’t know and some of what she’s been told isn’t true.

It’s like I’m not allowed to know who he is or who I am…

… And I feel like nothing. Everyone will eventually find out that I’m empty. No personality, no history, no stories about family. I am nothing except what I’ve been told. p 239

This book is very much about the past’s impact on the present. Nessa’s life put on hold, desperate to find out what happened to her sister and pining for Ruby, the secrets Clover’s forced to keep, and Ruby’s very clichéd (but expected) acting out against a father who switches from controlling to dismissive to punitive.

Although domestic violence, well violence, underpins this story, it’s subtle. We’re not present for any of it, just some of the aftermath. And – like other books (such as The Marsh King’s Daughter) we’re reminded that people aren’t all good or bad. Although the saying…. ‘When someone shows you who they are, believe them.’ comes to mind.

This is the second book I’ve read by Mannion and both of them have been powerful, impactful reads centred around family, friendships, trust and lies.

Tell Me What I Am by Una Mannion will be published by Faber & Faber in early June 2024.

I received an electronic copy of this book from the publisher for review purposes. 


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