Fat Books & Thin Women

Review: Mary Horlock’s The Book of Lies
September 8, 2011, 12:50 pm
Filed under: Book Reviews, Commercial Fiction | Tags: , , , , , ,

Disclaimer: The publisher provided this book for review via NetGalley.

Mary Horlock’s The Book of Lies is an engaging and (dare I say it) sprightly story set on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel. The novel takes up the role of islanders under German occupation and the life of a chubby teenage girl who, early in her narrative, cops to murdering her best friend, Nic. Horlock tells her story with two first-person narrators, Cathy (the aforementioned teenage girl) and via a diary and other papers from the brother of Cathy’s father.

Cathy’s father, recently dead, was a historian of Guernsey. Though Cathy is unable to recognize it, his theories of the island and what roles islanders played during the occupation have an air of the crackpot about them; his writing nevertheless influences her own, down to the extensive footnotes she scatters throughout her narrative. In Cathy Horlock effortlessly catches the teenager’s voice, reminiscent at times of Georgia Nicolson from Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging. Cathy appears to write so guilelessly about her life that it is hard not to fall a little bit in love with her and her voice, as with her vaguely defined crush on a teacher she runs into on the beach:

Mr. McCracken asked after Mum and called her a “trouper,” but I thought he said a “grouper,” which is a fish. I replied that Mum didn’t like water and hot climates. We stared at the steps and the seaweed and the rocks.

Horlock reaches, with Cathy, for something more than a simple narrative of high school, boys, and fights with friends. Having revealed early in the novel that she’s murdered her best friend, Cathy spends the rest of the book telling her reader what happened.

The Book of Lies is at times startling for the ways Horlock tries to bring Cathy’s perfect teenage voice into line with the darker narrative of what happened to her family during the war and what she herself did to one of her classmates. If Horlock is trying to suggest something with Cathy’s writing and the ways in which she absorbs the writings of her father, it may be that that sort of unquestioning reading and understanding is a problem that didn’t leave Guernsey after the war ended, after the German occupiers left and questions of allegiance were relegated to the history books.

The entire book, though – Cathy’s decision to record her story of Nic – owes something to those history books and to Cathy’s father’s self-appointed role as island historian. As Cathy writes:

Perhaps I also prefer it when people are dead because that’s when they become History, and what I like most about History is how you can change it.

What makes Cathy such an intriguing character is that despite her strength on the page, she so rarely asserts herself in life. This idea of History, of the ways it shifts based on who is doing the telling, seems empowering to her, and goes some way to explaining why Cathy decided to write about Nic and the murder and her father, and what Horlock was trying to achieve with her character. Though Horlock is at times able to make the reader question these ideas of history and loyalty, the narrative structure and voices she’s assigned to her work often don’t fit these larger questions. The Book of Lies, read as a coming-of-age/crime novel, is an absolute success, the sort of book you’ll read in a day and be sorry to see end. As a story about a teenage girl grappling with the questions of history and storytelling her father began to address long before her story began, the novel never slows down enough that the reader is able to reformat the questions, or even to see if Cathy herself attempts to answer them.