The White Lie

ANDREA Gillies  is  no  stranger  to  family  drama, having written a memoir, Keeper, about looking after her Alzheimer’s-inflicted mother-in-law. In The White Lie, her first work of fiction, she returns to the familial saga, this time set in the Scottish estate of Peattie, home to four generations of the Salter family. Ostensibly, the novel is concerned with the mystery of Michael, the narrator and eldest grandson of the estate’s incumbents, Henry and Edith Salter. He admits, in the opening sentence, that he is dead — "that much I know for sure". Fourteen years earlier, at the age of 19, he was seen arguing with his aunt, Ursula, in a boat on the estate’s loch, moments before she knocked him into the water and hit him on the head with an oar. Ursula runs sobbing to the house to confess that she has killed Michael; that he has drowned in the loch. But childlike Ursula is short of an oar herself, and so makes an unreliable witness. With her history of odd behaviour and otherworldly manner, her family’s first reaction is to doubt her story, especially as Michael’s body is never found. But soon they reason that since one cannot bring back the dead, their duty is to protect the living and they close ranks, deciding rather to cover up the incident — something not hard to do in the high-walled, detached property which, much like its inhabitants, is far removed from modern society. A white lie is, by definition, a trivial and well-intentioned untruth, designed to spare someone’s feelings, and the family’s rationalisation of Michael’s disappearance is just one of the many fabrications and half-truths the book exposes and, to varying degrees, tries to answer. The questions come thick and fast: D id Michael’s aunt really kill him or did he escape and head off for a better life elsewhere, as his family has told the local community. Is his possible drowning a repeat of the one in the same loch 20 years earlier of Henry and Edith’s youngest child, Sebastian, which affected his parents’ relationship irrevocably. The Salters believe they can hide the real story indefinitely but, as life so often shows, the truth will out, and 14 years of dissembling, lies and deceit come to a head at Edith’s 70th birthday party. As Michael says: "Memories are all we ever have, after even a day in the world, and who’s to make a judgment on what’s real and what’s not?" The dilemma facing the family is that their collective memories are disparate, formed in part by differing agendas. They invent stories and rework old narratives to disguise their guilt and the author snakes back and forth through the decades, revealing fragments of information that often prove contradictory. The White Lie is an unusual and unsettling story that highlights what family, however dysfunctional it may be, really means. Title: The White Lie  Author: Andrea Gillies, Publisher: Short Books. Source: BusinessDay

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