Mary Horlock’s The Book of Lies
HarperCollins, 2011

Did you know that there were Nazi concentration camps on British soil during the Second World War? I didn’t, but having read The Book of Lies, I now know.

There were four of them actually. And it’s highly appropriate that Cat be the one who told me about this. She is the narrator of Mary Horlock’s debut novel, and she is all about unearthing horrors.

She comes by it honestly. Her father was founder and editor of The Patois Press, whose mandate was to study and reveal the history of the Channel Islands (especially Guernsey), including the nasty bits.

Emile Rozier was the local expert on such things; he knew about the underground gas chambers and the many acts of English resistance, and about tonnes of stuff in between.

Cat is interested in history; she does want to understand the political events that have conspired to make such a colourful past for the island she calls home (which lies in the English Channel off the French coast of Normandy).

But her interest in reading her father’s works is also more personal, as she attempts to reconcile herself to his recent death.

You can see the pattern here: death, death, and more death.

And, oh, yes, there is the matter of her having killed her friend Nicolette, which she confesses to at the beginning of the second paragraph.

See? More death. What did I tell you?

So I wouldn’t recommend turning to The Book of Lies when you’re looking for something light-hearted.

Well, not exactly. But there is something funny about Cat. Albeit something wickedly funny.

It’s just the way she looks at things, the way that she strikes out at the world.

And it’s also her use of language, which is kind of typically teenager-ish, in her use of words like ‘trés-mega-sorry’ and ‘morbidified’.

Cat’s view of things is ironic and clever: it makes dabbling in darkness not only bearable but almost fun.

Well, as fun as it can be, hanging around the ruins of German fortifications and digging through the lies that many residents have staked their lives to conceal.

But, yes, Cat is responsible for taking a life.

And, yes, she is not entirely truthful. When she is asked, “You wouldn’t lie about something this big, would you?”, she answers, “No way.” But then she adds this bit: “(And normally I wouldn’t.)”

Still readers are intended to trust Cat; they are meant to believe that, just as in this example, she is being forthright with them (even if she is lying to everybody else) in The Book of Lies.

Uh oh: you see how problematic that is, right? She is being truthful in a book that declares it’s filled with lies. And that’s just the kind of in-your-face challenge that readers face with Cat.

Still, like it or not, there is the matter of Nicolette’s death. Readers want to know what happened there, so they must read on.

And Cat has a certain charm and she is not without allies.

Well, okay, you might expect her mother to be on her side. She challenges another character by saying:  “I didn’t bring my daughter up to be a liar”.

But, even as she’s defending Cat, Cat observes: “There wasn’t even a flicker in her eyes to give the game away and I knew then that she was the most brilliant liar. The very best liars are the ones you never know.”

So there you have it, even Cat’s mother knows she’s a liar.

Or, does she? And, even if she does, does she hold her responsible for it?

Aren’t there times when telling a lie is kinder than telling the truth?

Isn’t it true that concealing something can take more strength than being honest?

“I now understand why people prefer lies. The truth isn’t easy.”

It’s neither easy nor simple.

“We hear so many stories that it is hard to believe they were once based on single, simple fact.”

Many of the stories that Emile records in his small press publications are variations on simple facts. Most of them are connected to families who still call these islands home. Most of them are not simple at all.

A quick internet search reveals that these stories abound. I spotted an image of paving in the Royal Square that had been repaired during the German occupation of Jersey Island. A stonemason had incorporated a V into the stone, a V to signify Victory, which then sat in full view of the occupiers.

Through Cat’s narrative, which includes a written narrative from her father’s generation that she discovers while going through his study, Mary Horlock’s The Book of Lies reminds readers that sometimes the truth is right there.

It’s right in front of us, but we just can’t see it. Or, we simply don’t want to.

So…are you ready to read a bunch of lies?