Saturday, 24 October 2015
The White Lie by Andrea Gillies
David was interred here on a freezing autumn morning, with pomp and ceremony, with a quartet rented for the day, with roses and poetry and sombre family dogs assembled seated in black collars. I had nothing like that. My ceremony in the wood here – for there was a ceremony of sorts, at my mother’s insistence, despite the lack of a body to bury – was characterised by a kind of bewilderment. Nobody knew quite what to say or how to achieve the right tone, and so an atmosphere that could have been pious was, instead, marked by an absence of clarity. Ottilie had provided memorials: a round marble disc was set into the floor of the wood, and a marble standing stone, about two and a half feet high and carved with an angel on one side, was installed beside it. The angel looks down on the disc, its face downcast and even its wings worn at a defeated angle. Seeking anonymity, the status of garden statuary, the stones are assumed to be a secondary testament to a hero’s passing, a modern honouring of the family soldier, an assumption that suits everyone. The mourners spent much of the time bickering about the siting of these objects, before wrestling the angel into place, ineptly from a rusting green wheelbarrow.
commentary: There were some things to like about this book, and it seems mean to voice all my criticisms: I think of Andrea Gillies putting her all into writing it, and I don’t like laying into living authors unless they’ve sold, and made, millions. (This is actually a much politer version, believe it or not, of my views - I discarded my first review.)
Many people love the book - there are a lot of 5-star reviews on amazon. But it screamed out to me that it should have been edited a lot more. Half way through I couldn’t see how she was going to fill the second half of the book – I’d quite liked it until then – and I still don’t really know how she did.
As you would guess, there was some notion that ‘the white lie’ of the title seemed harmless but ruined people’s lives. And there’s the first major problem: none of the lies were small white lies, by anyone’s standards, that idea doesn’t stand up for a moment. Lives were ruined – but by disastrous decisions, outrageous deceit, horrendous snobbishness and complete selfishness. Not by small lies.
One amazon reviewer (not a 5*) described it like this: ‘eccentric rich family living in rural estate, gradually crumbling and falling to modernity; secret upon secret; rich snobbish aristos looking down on suspicious, craven and envious villagers’ – and I feel I can’t better that. There was even a linen cupboard where the young people hung out, as in Nancy Mitford. (NB characters nothing like as good as Mitford’s.)
The plot concerns a miserable family on a big Scottish estate. A young man Michael disappears one day, and the family stages a cover-up (NOT A WHITE LIE, RIGHT?). Michael – whom we know to be dead, but not exactly how or when it happened – is narrating the book. So it’s a cross between Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones and Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar.
There was a stupidly complex timeline, and endless characters who added nothing to the story. I would like to ask what the role was of the following: Johnny, Izzy, Terry, Robert, Alastair, Rebecca. How would the book be different without them?
Others will no doubt find this book much less annoying than I did, and will enjoy it - Gillies IS a good writer, and there were fine descriptions of places and weather.
The photos are from Perry Photography and used with her kind permission: you can see more of her pictures at Flickr, or at her website weddingsinitalytuscany. Her wonderful photos have featured on the blog many times before.