Shouldn’t History explain everything? – Mary Horlock, The Book of Lies
Up until the age of about twelve or thirteen I had no real idea about voice. Writers told stories, mostly in the third person I suppose, and the reader tagged along. I think the first book where I became fully aware of voice would be Catcher in the Rye. I know it’s a book that many readers grow out of – indeed the last time I read it, when I was about thirty-five, I was quite underwhelmed by it – but at the time, and I imagine this might have been even truer back in the fifties when it was first published, I’m sure that it accurately reflected the teenage colloquial speech of the time and every few years since some new book has been heralded as the new Catcher in the Rye for its generation: Generation X has been called a Catcher in the Rye for the 90s and Less than Zero purports to be The Catcher in the Rye for the MTV generation. There have also been Catcher in the Ryes for the Atari generation, the iPad generation, the Twitter generation, the MySpace generation, the Grunge generation, even the fortysomethings.
One thing I’ve never read yet is something that says it’s a Catcher in the Rye for girls. I’m not saying that there aren’t girls out there who appreciate Salinger’s novel but in my experience the book is especially-loved by males-of-a-certain-age. I was one of them.
I think that Mary Horlock’s debut novel, The Book of Lies, might be one of those books that is best appreciated by females-of-a-certain-age. This is not to say that I as a male didn’t enjoy it because I did – very much actually – but I was never a fifteen-year-old girl and I was only a fifteen-year-old boy for about two months when I was thirteen. But what the narrator and main protagonist of this book has in common with Holden Caulfield is a voice, an idiolect if you want to be all fancy pants about it which is exactly the kind of thing Catherine Rozier would say as I will illustrate shortly. But first let me read you the blurb on the back of the book:
It’s been a fortnight since they found her body and for the most part I am glad she’s gone. But I also can’t believe she’s dead, and I should do because I did it.
Now if the title wasn’t enough to get me to start thumbing though the book, that short extract most certainly would have and then to find that it was written by a fifteen-year-old girl about her best friend, well, I was interested. Only that’s not the only story here. Oh, no. The thing is, is history repeating itself?
History is a big deal where Catherine lives. I know everywhere has its history but not all histories are as interesting as Guernsey’s. Okay, if you’re as geographically-challenged as I am you probably have no idea where Guernsey is (hell, I thought the Falklands were up by Shetland) but I read in the Metro that apparently 6% of all six- to twelve-year-olds think the Outer Hebrides are on another planet. The Bailiwick of Guernsey is a British Crown Dependency in the English Channel off the coast of Normandy. Along with Jersey (also a bailiwick) it forms the Channel Islands. So, on the map it’s closer to France than it is to England but it’s still ours. I say that with no great sense of national pride because in general the Brits do not have what you might call a deep and abiding relationship with the islanders. Although its defence is the responsibility of the United Kingdom, Guernsey is not actually part of the UK so when on 15th June 1940, the British government decided that the Channel Islands were of no strategic importance and would not be defended they effectively gave up the oldest possession of the Crown to the Germans without firing a single shot. The Channel Islands served no real purpose to the Germans other than the propaganda value of having occupied some British territory but they did build four concentration camps in Alderney, change the time zone from GMT to CET in order to bring the islands into line with continental Europe and, as part of the Atlantic Wall, the occupying German forces and the Organisation Todt constructed fortifications round the coasts of the Channel Islands; in fact Hitler had decreed that 10% of the steel and concrete used in the Atlantic Wall go to the Channel Islands. The British Government's reaction to the German invasion was muted and it’s a subject that many have been happy to see brushed under that carpet.
Okay, Jim, all very interesting and all that but I thought you said this was a book about some fifteen-year-old girl who kills her best friend.
And it is. Bear with me. “What did you do in the war, Daddy?” is a question that all kids of my generation will have asked their fathers. Catherine’s father was only a small boy then but his father was on the island when it was occupied as was his brother, Charlie, and for years Catherine’s father has been trying to find out the truth of just what his father and brother did during the war because the facts are not at all clear. There is talk of collaboration and betrayal and murder. And it all involves best friends.
Charlie’s friend is Ray Le Poidevoin which is apparently quite a common Guernseian surname. Catherine’s friend is Nic, Nicolette Louise Prevost, and I’m sorry, Mary, but every time I read that I read it as Nicorette. No one would have got the joke because Nicorette, even though it’s been around since the sixties, didn’t become well known until the nineties and this book is set in the eighties, 1984 to be precise, and the book jumps back and forth between a letter Catherine is writing to her mum to set the record straight “‘The Testimony of C. A. Rozier’ [Transcribed by E.P. Rozier],” his brother (Catherine’s late father) in which her uncle tries to do the same.
Towards the end of the book there is a letter from one of the Germans addressed to Catherine’s father giving his side of events in which he says:
[T]here are more than two sides to any story. The truth is like a prism through which the light shines, but the patterns it creates can distract and confuse.
Like all of us Catherine is trying to understand her place in the world. Like all of us she looks to her family for some guidance:
Poor Mum. How do I ever begin to tell her what I did any why? If Dad were still here he’d know what to do. He’d start by saying that you have to go way back. Perhaps if Mum had done that sooner she would have seen what was ahead. If I’m writing this for anyone I suppose I’m writing it for her. She knows what happened to Dad is connected to what happened to Nic. It’s amazing, really, how everything connects. But what would you expect on this tiny island? We all know each other, or worse, we are related.
We talk about getting away and seeing the world, but we never do. We stay here making the same mistakes, over and over. I’m a murderer and it’s not my fault. I can blame the Germans, and I can blame my parents and I can blame my parents’ parents. Don’t you see. Once you know your History, it does explain everything.
There is a lot of history in this book and I like how Mary Horlock handles her history. Rather than having Catherine slow up her narrative with constant asides explaining what everything is, not that she doesn’t explain anything, the dry bits are included as footnotes which, if you’re caught up in what’s on the page, you can go back to later. There’s a nice map too at the start of the book not that there is, as you might imagine, much to the island.
I’ve said that Catherine is a fifteen-year-old girl – unfortunately overweight and a clever, which means she’s unpopular:
[M]y classmates at Les Moulins College for Cretins, the only all-girls’ school on the island … mostly all hate me for no good reason. Just because I sit at the front of the classroom and get all the questions right and hand my homework in early. And they call me Cabbage because of it. Teenage girls are très mega horrible, and Nic was exactly like that but prettier. She’d been moved down from the Grammar School, having been put down a year on account of her dyslexia. For some people (me) that would have been embarrassing, but my classmates took one look at her long blonde hair and big green eyes and turned dyslexic too.
The fact that Catherine doesn’t swoon over her like everyone else piques Nic’s interest so she gets to know her and finds she quite likes her:
Some people go for pale and interesting. That’s what you are: pale and interesting.
Catherine is pleased but she’s not lost 50 IQ points in the process. She realises that maybe Nic “wanted someone fat and frumpy to make her feel better than she already was.” Still she starts to see Nic as “the sister I’d never had but always wanted.” And then the chapter ends with:
And remember: two sisters, like two brothers, can be completely different.
Next chapter we get to read the first transcript of Charlie Rozier’s testimony to his brother. At first I didn’t think anything of the fact but as I started to work my way through the book I started to notice that things mentioned in Catherine’s account also appear in Charlie’s. For example, in one chapter Catherine is at a party; in the next, Charlie comes home to find Nazis in his house and refers to the group as a “party”:
What I do know is this: by the time I was marched into our front room the Germans had found what they’d been looking for. Happened Esme was right, and there had been some little party I’d missed out on.
It’s a small thing, easily missed (and I’ve probably missed several), but the few I did pick up on underline that there are parallels between the two stories. Catherine starts to see this and so, in a bid to understand, reads everything she can find out about what happened back then, something which is made easier by the fact her father has taken on the role of the island’s unofficial (and mostly unappreciated) historian. Most of the islanders are happy for the past to be forgotten since most of them (or their families) have something to be ashamed of. There was no resistance on Guernsey, not in the same way you think of the French Resistance; a little passive resistance but that’s about the size of it. Cooperation was an everyday thing but out and out collaboration, if I can distinguish between the two, and informing was not uncommon either. People did what they needed to do to survive including fraternising (i.e. sleeping with) the enemy or stealing from their neighbour if necessary. Catherine’s father might have been as willing as the rest to forget what had happened had it not been for what happened to his brother who ended up in a French concentration camp, who although he survived, returned a broken man.
If this seems a far cry from the book you probably thought I was going to be talking about at the beginning, I apologise. That book is still there; our primary narrator is still a fifteen-year-old girl who notices things like the “Boots 17 Cherry Pie-coated lips[tick]” her friend is wearing, who insists on capitalising words FOR EFFECT, who overuses the preposition “per” and is just as happy referencing Jackie as she is Shakespeare.
Charlie doesn’t get quite as much page-time as Catherine but he’s well-rounded and has his own voice. What is interesting about all the characters, but you obviously notice it more with the two narrators, is the peculiar turns of phrase that are used on the island. You can see that there’s a French influence there but it’s not French. For example this is how Charlie opens up his testimony:
P’tit Emile, man buoan fraire. You are my dear and only brother, but how can two brothers be so different, eh? You got the good stuff: the brains, the looks, our mother’s love, whilst I, bian sûr, was poisoned.
Some of the expressions are easy to guess: ‘mon Dju’ is obviously a variation on the French, ‘mon Dieu’ (my God) but what do you make of “Si nous pale du guiabye nous est saure d'l'y'vais les caurnes?” Charlie self-translates that one: “Speak of the devil and you shall see horns.” In French that would be « Parlez du diable et vous verrez les cornes » so there will be a few times you will struggle. What Charlie is speaking is Dgèrnésiais which Catherine describes as, “Medieval Norman French mixed with Latin, Welsh, Scotch and Brandy.”
Dgèrnésiais is the traditional language of Guernsey. It is a variety of Norman, similar to the dialects of Norman spoken in mainland Normandy and also to the Anglo-Norman used, after the 1066 invasion, in England. There is some mutual intelligibility with Jèrriais, the Norman dialect spoken in Jersey. It is mainly spoken by older people living in rural parts of the island and is sometimes referred to by the semi-disparaging name "patois". Catherine’s father’s press is called The Patios Press although all his publications are in English. There is a note, for example, at the top of the second transcription to check the patois used with someone called Mrs Mahy.
Horlock took especial care to get her language right consulting a 94-year-old islander, Miriam, who, when asked about the best swear words to use was politely advised, "The thing is, Mary, we never used this sort of language. The men might have spoken it but we didn't!"
This is an intelligent, well-written book. It doesn’t always feel like that because of Catherine’s style of writing. I was surprised there weren’t hearts over the i’s and underlining in fluorescent pink and all the other things that girls-of-a-certain-age feel they need to do to effectively communicate both their message and the emotional state they were in when they wrote it. The book was apparently inspired by her old diaries from when she was a girl. In an interview she said this:
I knew I wanted to write a book. I had been experimenting with fiction but hadn’t written anything that I wanted to show anyone. I knew as soon as I started writing about Guernsey that this was the novel to share.
I would be sitting in our flat in central London, imagining I was back in our house on Guernsey looking out over the cliffs.
Then I rediscovered my old diaries and it brought back to me all the good things about growing up on Guernsey but also how frustrating it can be as a teenager, not even able to get on a bus and escape to a different town, like you can in England. There’s something particular, and particularly isolating about growing up on a small island. It feels a lot like adolescence.
I cannot pretend for a minute that I could see where she was going with this two-pronged storyline. Yes, yes, I could see the obvious parallel because they state it explicitly: Catherine says she murdered Nic and Charlie maintains he murdered his father. But what happened is not always what people say happened or think happened. And then there’s the death of Catherine’s father. Could her mother have done more to stop her husband’s death just as Catherine’s grandmother might have done more to protect her own husband? There’s a lot of guilt going around in Guernsey . . . and some of it is well deserved. “Guilt is the only reason anyone does anything,” says Michael, a friend of Catherine’s, and she thinks he may be right. Living on Guernsey one can see why one might think that might be right.
This is also a far deeper book than I expected at first. In fact the death of Nic rather fades into the background a bit. Yes, it happened, yes, it was a tragedy (although if Nic hadn’t turned into an UBERBITCH halfway through the book I might have cared more) but it is just the catalyst that drives Catherine to finish her Dad’s job. The thing is – and this is both brave and clever – we don’t get to know all the answers at the end, in fact what Catherine does is list all the things we’ve probably missed while reading the book and the first thing you will probably want to do once you’ve finished it is pick it up and read it a second time with a bit more care.
Reviews of the book have been generally favourable. Of course me being me I sought out the worst to see what they had to say. Probably the worst anyone had to say about it, other than those who just didn’t get it, was this one from Amazon: “It all reads like a slightly convoluted episode of Midsomer Murders, bit twee, bit trite and English and wholly unbelievable.” They are, of course, entitled to their opinion but I can’t agree with it. I do agree that Catherine’s narration can be a bit annoying at times but I can’t imagine spending any length of time with any fifteen-year-old and not being annoyed after a bit. Horlock, herself, actually describes the novel as "a murder mystery in reverse."
Let me leave you with a video of the author talking about the book:
Mary Horlock was born in Australia but grew up on Guernsey in the Channel Islands. She studied at Cambridge and went on to work as a curator at Tate Britain and Tate Liverpool. She is a former curator of the Turner Prize. Horlock lives in London, England, with her partner, the Lacanian psychoanalyst and psychologist Darian Leader, and their two children, and she is currently writing a book on art, lies and camouflage, based on the life of her great-grandfather, an official war artist and Second World War camoufleur. Although she has written widely on modern and contemporary art, this is her first novel.
Having committed to writing Horlock now has several books in the pipeline. She's writing a non-fiction book about her great-grandfather and also working on the second book in a planned Island trilogy. "A ghost story", it will be set on Sark, where Horlock spent her childhood holidays, which she describes as "a place full of myths and legends, very richly steeped in pirates and witches, really isolated.”
Alice O'Keeffe, ‘Island of Lost Souls’, The Bookseller, 10th December 2010