The White Lie

By Andrea Gillies

(Short Books, R194,95)

Dysfunctional families abound, in fiction as in life. Delve deep enough past the façade and most families are damaged to some degree. The Salters, around which this intricate psychological mystery revolves, are at the extreme end of the disturbed family spectrum. Quite possibly off the scale altogether.

This is by no means your average family saga. To start with, in a move reminiscent of Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, the first-person narrator, Michael Salter, announces in the opening sentence that he is dead.

Ursula, Michael’s aunt, who appears to be the nuttiest of a very odd bunch, claims she killed him while they were out on the loch in a boat. To protect her, the family come up with a different story. But what really happened? While this is the central mystery, there is also the tragic drowning in the loch of Sebastian, Ursula’s baby brother, 24 years before Michael’s disappearance. Then there is the dubious question of just who Michael’s father could be.

In her complex and multilayered debut novel, Gillies explores the elusive, enigmatic interplay between memory, myth and reality.

In an interview she describes how the inspiration for the story came about when she caught a glimpse of a remote old house while she was travelling on a bus.

She started thinking about how family secrets could be kept hidden in such an isolated setting. The Salter family, living on their lonely Glen of Peattie estate amid a tangled web of rumours and lies, began to take shape.

“The family has had more than an average share of disasters, of premature deaths, one generation after another, such that people refer quite routinely to the power of the Salter curse,” Michael tells us. Their mouldering mansion, he says, reminds him of an illus- tration from a book of fairy tales: “…a glimpse of turret, of crenellation, of the complex slate geometries of a swooping roofline … the gardens are thick with weed, the rhododendrons feral, the trees untamed, and in every direction elderflower and thorn have woven their grid”.

The atmosphere and sense of place are magnificently evoked and you find yourself totally immersed in the secluded way of life of a very weird family tottering into decline as their once grand Scottish Highlands home slips into disrepair and decay.

The story twists and turns in convoluted circles between decades and generations, with a formidably large cast of characters, each giving different versions of events. Luckily the author has provided a handy family tree to which one can refer should one lose track of the characters.

With all the contradictory fabrications, keeping the multiple strands of the story in your mind is not as easy. To avoid confusion, you have to have your wits about you at all times, and be on full alert for red herrings.

Keeping all your ducks in a row while trying to decipher what is true or false is quite a challenge. It felt to me at times as if the author is playing some sort of labyrinthine memory game with her reader.

In view of this memory factor it is interesting that while this is her first novel, her previous work, the award-winning Keeper, is a memoir of her life while taking care of her mother-in-law who was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease.

The White Lie is a well-written, unusual, clever and absorbing read which draws you into a world where nothing is as it seems.