A Chinese Meal of a Novel

This is my review of The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock.

Set on Guernsey, this debut novel interweaves the lives of two characters: bright but unpopular and emotionally disturbed teenager Cathy, revealed through the black comedy of her diary , and her deceased Uncle Charlie, whose suffering under the German occupation is recorded in interviews with his brother Emile, also Cathy's father. Before his recent death, Emile was a local historian, obsessed with exposing the truth, but he may have been unable to cope with facts that proved unexpected, or impossible to prove beyond doubt.

In the first few pages Cathy confesses to the murder of her former best friend, but we know she is an unreliable witness. Other reviewers have been repelled by her coldness, but I see it as a kind of defence against a lack of parental affection and bewilderment over the loss of a father whom she clearly admires, but who died before she could "get to know him".

I found the genre hard to place – psychological drama, perhaps? Some scenes are very amusing. At times, it reads like a teenage cartoon strip, yet there is always an underlying sense of the grim legacy of the Nazi occupation. Guernsey is presented in a negative light – somewhat leavened by humour – as claustrophobically small, overrun by tax-dodging foreigners, with a local population concealing their guilty secrets over collaboration with the Germans. The web of lies makes it hard to know the truth, and triggers a chain of misunderstandings and long-term wrongs.

The story held my attention, despite the distracting footnotes, intended to show Cathy's precocious attempts to write like an academic historian, but many of the comments could easily have been included in the main body of the two parallel story lines.

Although I expected to be disappointed by the denouement, it is potentially better than I had feared. I like the ideas of an ambiguous ending, but some of the final revelations seem unnecessarily rushed and I was left too unclear as to exactly what role Cathy's mother has played. I also dislike the note of moral blackmail on which the book ends – it is neat, but overly cynical. I want the book to be more than just a clever construction.

Perhaps the portrayal of the malevolent Nic could have been more nuanced, although she is of course seen from Cathy's distorted viewpoint. Also, you may feel that sometimes the author steps in and inserts a little too much mature self-knowledge into Cathy's adolescent diatribes.

Overall, the novel is like a Chinese meal, giving short-term gratification but leaving you a little unsatisfied and wanting something more substantial.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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