- - Thursday, September 13, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE LIES WE TOLD

By Camilla Way

Berkley, $16, 136 pages

In “The Lies We Told,” author Camilla Way twines two stories into a double helix, twisting them seamlessly around each other so that we know they really form one tale, but for long enough cannot quite see how they will eventually merge.

One strand of this dual narrative is told by Beth. She begins by recalling her horrid discovery of the severed head of her pet bird on her pillow in 1986. She immediately realizes that it was her little girl Hannah, who had done the severing.

Hannah was a longed-for child, and her parents love her devotedly, but her behavior is nightmarish. She attacks other children, sets fires and watches people keenly so she can figure out ways to harm them. When her brother is born, Beth has to make sure she is never alone with him.

The other strand of the novel begins in 2017 with Clara waking up alone. She’d expected her boyfriend, Luke, to come home early to prepare for an important job interview. Frightened by his disappearance, Clara finds threatening emails on his phone. The last one had said, “I am coming for you Luke, I’ll be seeing you.” Is he dead? The police find a van with a bloodied seat but no body, so perhaps he’s alive somewhere.

As days pass, Clara and Luke’s friend, Mac, embark on their own investigation. Perhaps he’s with his devastated parents, Rose and Oliver. He’s not. Then they talk to Luke’s ex-girlfriends to see if any of them holds grudges or has any clues. Clara is startled to find that Luke — always wonderful in her eyes — has a history of betraying women. Maybe the horrible emails had a point. One claimed “Women are nothing to you are they? We’re just here for your convenience to step over, to use, or to bully. We’re disposable. You think you are untouchable, you think you have got away with it. Think again Luke.”

This suggests a woman scorned and lusting for revenge. And indeed, revenge turns out to be the motive of one strand of this twisted tale. Yet vengefulness may never have manifested itself, certainly not in the ways that devastate Beth’s and Luke’s family and friends, had it not been that almost everybody lies. Beth has anxieties about lying, but most of the other characters feel justified because they have lied to preserve their creature comforts or to protect their family or shield a friend or a lover.

These lies power that double helix plot, and fuel the tension of the novel, not least because for much of it, readers are among the deceived. Eventually, Camilla Way shows us how lies have shaped lives. Sometimes that has been for the short-term good, but in the longer term it has led to disastrous decisions and consequences. Since she offers no final consolation about their effects ever ending, this novel is a revenge tragedy in which the fatal flaw of mendacity kicks off a cascade of betrayals and unforeseen consequences.

The author’s stern view also has something of the morality play. Her characters have choices, but she shows them rejecting their good angels in favor of the blandishments of their bad angels.

She handles her dual narrative deftly, meting out well-paced details that create and develop tension as readers puzzle out the ties between Beth’s story about Hannah and Clara’s investigation of Luke’s disappearance.

While the author’s controlling rein on the narrative keeps attention focused on questions about Luke’s disappearance, her characterization of the important players in the story is less sharp. We have to take Luke’s charm and popularity on trust. Clara is nice and well-liked but is always a rather blurry presence. The eventual revelations about Rose and Oliver are unsuspected because their early characterization sets them up as the archetypal “wonderful couple.”

Only the demon Hannah jumps from the page. When she tells Beth “You all lied to me. All of you. You are all responsible and you are not going to get away with it,” she is really, terrifyingly believable — an exemplar of the literary truism that bad characters steal the limelight from the good ones.

Readers of Camilla Way’s earlier novel, “Watching Edie” (2016), will find here a similar tale of twisted narratives fueled by obsession and driving relentlessly on to disaster. Those new to the author’s work will enjoy — or perhaps shudder — at this tense psychological thriller.

Claire Hopley is a writer and editor in Amherst, Mass.


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