The Book of Lies

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The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock, book reviewDuring the Second World War the tiny Channel Island of Guernsey was occupied by German troops. The Rozier family were forced to work with the Germans because their father owned the only printing press on the island and the occupiers needed someone to print their propaganda. Emile Rozier, the elder son, resented the family’s involvement with the Germans and plotted with his friend Roy Le Poidevoin to escape to England. Plans went awry resulting in his father being shot by the Germans. Emile faced years of being treated by the Islanders as an outcast whilst Roy, the guy he assumed had betrayed him went on to be hailed as a hero.

In the mid 1980s Catherine Rozier is struggling with her own demons and her status as a social pariah, ignored and picked on in equal measure by the in-crowd. Cat’s suffering the aftermath of being ostracised by her best friend, Nicolette, the girl everyone wants as their best friend. Beneath the pretty exterior Nic’s just plain nasty – a girl who’s too used to having things her own way, she drags Cat into a dark place of drink, sex and bad behaviour. When Nic’s body is washed up on the shore after falling (or possibly jumping, nobody’s too sure) from the cliffs, the islanders are in shock but Cat knows what happened the day Nic died but suspects that nobody will believe her. In many ways The Book of Lies is revealed – eventually – as Cat’s confession letter to her mother.

What connects the two stories is a dysfunctional family and forty years of lies and deceit, of accusations made and unmade and sins assumed and accordingly punished. Cat is the niece of Emile and her late father Charles – Emile’s younger brother – has devoted his life to proving his brother’s innocence of the crimes the islanders levelled against him and to recording the behaviour of the Germans during the war.

From the outside it’s easy to imagine that Guernsey must be a cosy little island paradise inhabited by the rich, beautiful and powerful. Other books have portrayed a rather whimsical society with the much lauded Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Schaffer painting an almost ‘Allo Allo’ image of those troubled times. By contrast the Guernsey of Mary Horlock’s first novel, is a dark oppressive place where neighbour spies on neighbour and bullying is rife and where many yearn to escape the ever watchful gaze of those around them.

The Book of Lies is a book filled with betrayal but not always by the obvious people.”

The Book of Lies is narrated by Cat and takes place at a time when isolation was greater than it can be today; a time before the internet and mobile phones when a small island community was still very cut off from the rest of the world and when the older generations were still haunted by memories of the War. Setting it in the 80s is a wise choice because it ensures that enough of the older characters remember the hardships of the past whilst the youth are looking for a new way forward. For a long time I struggled to see the parallels between Cat’s present tense first person narrative and the older story of her uncles and grandfather and their wartime troubles. It’s worth persevering because the ending ties everything together very neatly and answers the many questions introduced along the way.

Woven into Cat’s story are extracts from her father’s files – interviews with his brother Emile, letters written to newspapers, research he’s worked on to build the story of his family during the war and records of his attempts to clear his brother’s name in the decades that follow. We learn of the mass starvation of islanders, the killing of slave workers and of neighbours selling out neighbours to the oppressive occupiers as well as women collaborating ‘horizontally’ with the Germans.

There’s no mystery about Nic’s death since we know even before opening the book that Cat ‘did it’. It’s there on the back cover so it’s not something we ever need to wonder about. We have to read further to understand why and how and to feel that we too would probably have pushed this thoroughly unpleasant specimen off a cliff, given the chance. The mystery revolves around the wartime events and when we eventually find out who betrayed Emile and his father, it comes as one heck of a shock. I can honestly say I never saw it coming and I was left impressed by the neatly tied loose ends of the story.

This is a complex book and it’s hard to imagine there are too many readers who’ll drop comfortably and naturally into reading the teen ramblings of a girl who’s gone much too far as well as the historic accounts of her family’s shocking history. I found it easy to relate to Cat’s loneliness and feelings of abandonment but I struggled at first to get into the tale of her uncle and grandfather and found I was sometimes skimming the extracts of the father’s files in order to get back to Cat’s story. Setting it in the 80s worked well for me since the musical and fashion references were appropriate to my own teen years. As the book progressed I became increasingly interested in the wartime story, completely failing to spot the ‘whodunnit’ behind the death of Catherine’s grandfather or the impact that its revelation had on her father until the very end of the book. However as that story came to life I became decreasingly engaged in Cat and Nic’s story which started to drag rather in the second half of the book.

I learned a lot about Guernsey and the German Occupation without the sense of learning at all, which must be classified as a good thing. I also learned – painfully and irritably – about the language used by people in Guernsey, a strange mix of old Norman French and who knows what. None of this dialect is translated which will probably be pretty frustrating to anyone without pretty good French. I could guess a lot of it but by no means all and at times I wished the passages were translated or better still, not written in unexplained dialect at all. Given Catherine’s over-use of footnotes throughout her account, I would have appreciated a few more in the sections about her uncle and grandfather. Those footnotes irritated me since they seemed out of place in a novel and I wasn’t sure what point the author was making by using them. But these are minor irritations and ones I can forgive in the light of such a compelling story and artfully crafted plot.

The Book of Lies is a book filled with betrayal but not always by the obvious people. When Nic betrays Cat’s friendship we’re encouraged to think that the revenge is almost acceptable. When Cat’s father realises his life’s work was entirely focused on the sins of the wrong people, that same life becomes meaningless. Could Cat’s mother have done more to stop her husband’s death just as Cat’s grandmother might have done more to protect her own husband? The Book of Lies is so much deeper, more complicated and ultimately horrifying than Cat’s account of the apparently unimportant distractions of teen jealousy and competition would ever suggest. The initially rather turgid tales of wartime are finally peeled back to reveal the horror and shocking betrayal behind the death of Cat’s grandfather and the destruction of her uncle’s mental well-being. I’m left thinking that I didn’t exactly ‘like’ this book but it certainly impressed me and left a lingering sense of discomfort that has me still thinking about the plot more than a week after I finished reading.

The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock
Published by Canongate Books, March 2011

Thanks to Canongate for providing a review copy.

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Book of Lies, The
by Mary Horlock

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Koshkha has a busy international job that gives her lots of time sitting on planes and in hotel rooms reading books. Despite averaging about 3 books a week, she probably has enough on her ‘to be read’ shelves to keep her going for a good few years and that still doesn’t stop her scouring the second hand books shops and boot-fairs of the land for more. At weekends she lives with her very lovely husband and three cats, but during the week she lives alone like a mad spinster aunt. She will read just about anything about or set in India, despises chick-lit, doesn’t ‘get’ sci fi and vampire ‘stuff’ and has just ordered a Kindle despite swearing blind that she never would.

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