Monday, July 29, 2013

JOHN CHUCKMAN REVIEW OF MARY HORLOCK'S THE BOOK OF LIES: A NOVEL

The theme of the book, as the title implies, is about truth and lies – a retelling of that ancient observation that what people hold as truth is often a lie and what they regard as a lie is just as likely to be the truth. In the parlance of war, war being part of the book’s subject matter, history is what the victor says it is.

This is a subject of never-ending fascination, and, in a world where the President of the United States speaks of rights and freedoms while sending fleets of high-tech death squads to kill thousands of innocents on the other side of the planet, it certainly has fresh relevance.

While there are a great many lies told and truths lost along the way in this book, I think the author largely fails in making her case. Indeed, I think the book says things she likely never intended.

To my mind, an important theme of the book is the truly suffocating nature of life on a small island where little happens and there is almost no opportunity.

Boredom in the characters’ lives and their need to feel part of a relatively small gang of peers and neighbors, no matter how obnoxious their behavior or dull their character, this reader found genuinely oppressive.

I also feel certain the author did not intend to write a novel about mental illness and the terrible damage that severe cases inflict on friends and family, but that is what I believe she has done. Is the evident mental illness of several characters here unintended? I think so. For the author and a number of reviewers seem to think there is humor and humanity in lunatic thoughts and vicious acts.

Does mental illness’s importance in this story (again for me) reflect the effects of inbreeding over the centuries in so small a place as Guernsey, further enhancing the suffocating social effects of island life? I think so.

In her effort to explore truth and lies, Ms Horlock mixes fiction with fact and has two stories running in alternate chapters, one is the main, later fictional story and the other a part-fictional blend of earlier events. One at first thinks of an admirable effort like the great German film, People on Sunday, an original mixture of documentary and a fictional story from 1930.

But to my mind Ms Horlock does not succeed in blending fact and history, and again, as with other parts of the book, there is confusion. She makes a surprising number of errors in her history, as in often calling German troops Nazis, when in fact the average German conscript was no more a Nazi than the average Russian conscript was a Stalinist or the average Italian a Fascist.

Again, the author badly confuses concentration camps with death camps (note: camps are not a significant part of either of the author’s two stories). Despite the term concentration camp having come down to us in Hollywood movies as the places in which mass murder was organized, the truth is that there were broadly two distinct and different sets of institutions.

Concentration camps - of which there were many and in which the nature of the populations and the severity of their treatment by the state varied just as with modern prisons ranging from minimum to maximum security – were mainly places to isolate and punish dissidents and political undesirables or to hold people until some further disposition were decided, which could, of course include death for political crimes.

Along with some other allied nations, the United States too had concentration camps during the war. They were for resident Japanese, some Italians, serious dissidents, and others, but it called them internment camps. The many people interned lost their freedom for years, lived meagre lives under harsh conditions, and had their property, homes and businesses and bank accounts, stolen and never returned even after the war. But mainly they were not killed, and just so for the most part in Germany.

The death camps – most infamously Auschwitz – were disguised as concentration or work camps but were places for organized, industrial-scale murder in Eastern Europe under covering chaos of the invasion of Russia. The death camps were not run by police or by the German Army, whose leaders mostly wanted nothing to do with Hitler’s brutal excesses in breaking military traditions and international codes.

They were run by a special (lowlife) branch of the SS, itself a political army which served as Hitler’s Praetorian Guard whose officers were selected and indoctrinated to provide an elite corps of Aryan future-society types.  

The author also speaks of the underground field hospital the Germans built on Guernsey and leaves the suggestion that German field hospitals away from the fronts were for the hideous Nazi experiments with prisoners. That is simply not true.

The problem with this book is that confusion so often prevails, and not just in historical facts, but in the main story, especially in the main characters. Cathy, the protagonist, is supposed to be very funny - an older, more earthy and sophisticated version of Martha Grimes’ Emma Graham. But Cathy is in fact a pretty nasty piece of work, someone with little affection for members of her family, someone given to ugly impulsive behavior, and someone who tells lies extreme enough to destroy the lives of others. She does not represent a “typical” adolescent in my experience.

Cathy is often not funny despite author’s effort to have it so. Cathy’s light and elliptical adolescent descriptions strike me as not consistent with her acts, which vary from just dumb to genuinely vicious.

Nicolette, alternately Cathy’s close friend and poisonous enemy, is one of those adolescent beauties intensely and neurotically aware of her attractiveness to others – always flipping her hair and spending considerable time at mirrors and acting as though a moment’s attention from her were a rare gift bestowed. The key to her nature is that she endlessly uses her attractiveness to play the tyrant over the lives of virtually everyone with whom she comes into contact.

Unless you like tales of “those good old boys drinking whiskey and rye,” neither of these characters is attractive or particularly interesting. Indeed Nic, for so Nicolette is called, is so lacking in human values it seems unreal that many people in the story continue to crave her attention and the glow of her presence. Nicolette is an extreme narcissist with no loyalties to anyone or anything beyond her own perverse amusement and poisonous humor. She is pretty close to what we today call a sociopath.

While we have all met characters like Nic in life, and may well have been taken in for a while by false charm and glamor, the people in this book are all taken in all the time. She is a walking center of attention for Cathy and other girlfriends, a dark star in whose orbit they rotate, and it strains credibility that someone this vicious and inconstant could long sustain the interest and loyalty of others, at least of those with intelligence, as Cathy is supposed to have.

The book is well written, and it has its moments, but there are not nearly enough of them. In the end we left feeling the sort of fetid horror of being at the mercy of someone like Nic, or Cathy for that matter, in a small isolated place. And we are left with a long trail of bad decisions and stupid acts trying to pass for amusement.

And it does seem very much to me that the author’s late explanation for Nic’s treatment of Cathy is contrived and unconvincing. The same circumstance, which I won’t reveal, is used to almost justify Cathy’s criminal treatment of an excellent teacher, revealing not so much a web of lies as a set of very warped values.

“Cathy’s teenage voice is a joy – funny, endearing and credible….Horlock has created an authentic adolescent voice and…illuminated the history of a small island….”  The Independent

“Irresistibly funny and poignant….”  Financial Times

This reviewer cannot agree with either of those statements, and they only demonstrate the fatuous and even incestuous nature of so much of the book review industry.


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