The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock

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The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 3.5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A murder mystery from the young murderer’s point of view and what really happened back in WW2 combine to make an interesting, if at times slightly irritating, read.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 336 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Cannongate Books
ISBN: 978-1847678850

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Catherine Rozier is fifteen years old and she has a secret.

Secrets are a big thing on Guernsey, the small Channel Isle that is only three miles across at one point with a population a little over 65,000 i.e. somewhat more than Hereford, considerably less than Lincoln, or about half that of Norwich or Preston. Unlike any of those towns, Guernsey is an island. It is self-contained. It isn't just that everyone knows everyone else; they're almost certainly, quite closely, related.

They're also only a generation or so away from the German occupation during the Second World War. Occupied countries survive as best they can; people living under occupation are faced with hard choices that those of us who've been lucky enough never to have been there will never fully understand. When / if those countries are subsequently 'liberated' the recriminations start, and seep through families down the generations.

Least said, soonest mended. So goes the proverb. What that means in practice, is that people don't talk. They keep their secrets.

This is the atmosphere in which our fifteen year old narrator has been brought up. Her father recently died. Of a secret. Now she has one of her own. Catherine (don't call me Cathy) shares her secret with us immediately, for we are reading her private diary, or is it a prolonged letter? It's a confession in any event.

Catherine killed her so-called-best-friend. Nicolette was dragged from the waters a couple of days after she disappeared, but she didn't fall from the cliffs, nor did she jump. She was pushed.

What Catherine has to explain, to us or to whoever she is 'talking to', is how such a thing came to pass, and why – despite how she feels – she shouldn't really feel guilty about it at all. Nicky was a Liar and a Traitor who deserved everything she got… Nicolette Louise Prevost deserved to die.

There is venom in Catherine's rendition of events, and we have to bear in mind throughout that it is only one side of the story we get to hear. It's hard to do that. The more she tells, and the more candidly she tells of her own failings and transgressions the more believable it is, the more sympathy we have for her.

Catherine's account of the year that runs from November 1984 (any significance in that choice of date one wonders?) to December 1985 is told in schoolgirl vernacular. It is littered with footnotes that are at first intensely irritating, just missing the mark of the humour they are meant to convey. Perhaps that's clever. Perhaps that's the intended effect? CAPITAL LETTERS are scattered for effect, as are comments on the selection of vocabulary. It's tempting to think it might have been written in green ink... or maybe purple.

As this is a literary novel, it's probably forbidden to have a straight-forward narrative. So interspersed with Catherine's tale we have Charlie's story.

Charlie was Catherine's uncle. He was alleged to have betrayed the family during the war, and the fact that he spent several years in a concentration camp for his trouble did nothing to win any consideration, or forgiveness. Emile, his brother, Catherine's father, spent years trying to put the record straight. Transcriptions of his interviews, together with the occasional letter, provide the telling of what happened, and what people thought happened. Only towards the very end do we find the beginnings of the truth of it all.

Truth is theme of the book. The difficulty of truth. The hidden nature of it. The complicity of it. Truth, the Book of Lies tells us, is never simple. Lies are told for all sorts of reasons, good and bad, as often out of loyalty and protection as out of hate and malice. Sometimes, for no reason at all, as a child will lie, simply to see if they are believed. Lies, however, it seems are more robust than truth. They live longer, and impact harder.

Stylistically, the book isn't without its problems. Between Catherine's juvenile spiel and Charlie's frequent use of Guernsey Patois (which is rarely footnoted or explained), it can be juddery in places.

Topical references abound, but one of my problems with Catherine is that – for the school swot – even for a school swot who might just have committed murder – she has a tad too much attitude. I wasn't much older than her in 1985, and it wasn't like that.

That "sass" didn't really kick in until about ten years later, at least.

Oh yes, the parties happened, and they did get out of hand. And we did or did not fancy the teachers. And girls have always been cliquey and bullies. But still, I don't remember it being quite so blatantly vicious back then. I could be wrong.

On the other hand, the island is faithfully rendered in all its beauty and bleakness and opportunity and limitation, and above all both plots are well-crafted and paced. Catherine's story is the more emotive, Charlie's being a variation on a theme that we've heard too many times before however well it ties into the later events.

I want to give it the full 4 stars, but on balance it’s a compelling read that keeps you there, but not one that makes you want to start over when you get to the end.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: If the intangibility of truth intrigues, you might also enjoy Truth or Fiction by Jennifer Johnston.

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Buy The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Book of Lies by Mary Horlock at


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