Hanif Kureishi has called Mary Horlock’s novel The Book of Lies ‘an unforgettable and brilliant debut’. We think highly of it as well as you can see in our review of the book. Phoebe Bond spoke with the author about childhood in Guernsey, the German Occupation of the island during WW2 and the challenges of writing unreliable narrators.
You were born in Australia but grew up in Guernsey in the Channel Islands where the novel is set. How did your own experiences of island life shape the writing of this book?
It was strange to move from a very big island to a very small one, although I was born in Perth, which in itself is quite separate from the rest of Australia. I like that separateness. Islands have these clearly defined boundaries, and a small island like Guernsey, even though it’s close to both England and France, has very much its own identity. Guernsey people are very proud to be neither French nor English! They have their own history and tradition. But island life can be isolating, and I think most people at one time or another have felt a certain ambivalence towards it – it’s easy to fall in love with the sea and the cliffs and how ‘manageable’ everything is, and the fact that everyone knows everyone breeds a sense of security. But this can become oppressive and alienating. Teenagers in particular have a difficult time, because once you’ve grown out of building dens on the cliffs and you want to get drunk and make all the usual adolescent mistakes, you can’t just hop on a bus and go to the next town to do it. My university friends would always laugh at me when I told them Guernsey only had one town and it was called ‘Town’, and a lot of my stories about growing up became a little comedy routine.
But growing up in Guernsey shaped me, I learned to use my imagination and to make my own entertainment, and that definitely helps when it comes to writing novels.
The story is told mainly from the perspectives of Cathy and Charlie, both 15 years old, born 40 years apart. Can you talk about the process you went through to find their unique voices?
Cathy, the teenage voice, came so quickly and easily it almost worried me. I began to wonder if I hadn’t been this desperately repressed 15-year-old all along! She was inspired partly by my own teenage diaries (littered with exclamation marks and block capitals and green highlighter pen) but also by a couple of girls I knew at school. There was this one girl who was terribly precocious – an only child with a much older father – she talked with a very posh accent (for Guernsey) and although she was clever, she was not as clever as she thought she was. A lot of the girls in my class loathed her. I found her strangely fascinating, and I would often try to bring her into a game or a conversation, and I was always amazed at how she would sabotage my efforts. She wasn’t pretty at all at school but I saw her recently and she has become stunningly beautiful. She is also, unfortunately, quite obnoxious.
The voice of Charlie was both easy and hard. It was easy because I knew quite a lot of elderly people in Guernsey and I have literally spent years hearing them talk. As a child I would loiter in the old covered market and listen to the old boys selling their wares. They often talked patois and it had this wonderful sing-song lilt. But it was hard to put it down on paper, because some of the sentences came out so elliptical and I wasn’t sure how that would travel. In the end I toned down the patois quite a lot.
In The Book of Lies the past continually interrupts the present. There is even a sense that what happened in the past, is predicting what takes place the present. What literary devices did you use to insinuate this?
I structured the stories very carefully so that although the chapters jump back and forth between past and present there’s always a tangible link between them. Specific places and family names keep recurring. I used places in particular. For example, there’ll be a chapter where Catherine is standing on the same spot her uncle was 40 years back, and the connections get stronger as the book moves along. I stuck to the geography of the island exactly, which helps to convey how small it is, as well.
The German occupation of Guernsey during World War II plays a major role in your novel. How important was historical accuracy? How did you go about making sense of the varied accounts of what happened during World War II in order to create Charlie’s world?
I do feel that novels about Guernsey set during the Occupation have tended towards cliché, and I was determined to resist that. I read absolutely everything (and I mean newspaper cuttings dating from the fifties and sixties, self-published memoirs, as well as the official history books) and of course I am very fortunate to know people who lived through the Occupation, so I had primary sources. I found most islanders were happy to discuss their memories, although I quickly realised that everyone had their own story to tell and I couldn’t rely too heavily on one person’s account. That said, I was very intrigued by the differences and disagreements, and these became integral to the novel.
Charlie’s story is very firmly based in reality; his attitudes and opinions are a careful blend of real-life characters who fell foul of the Nazis and who subsequently spoke out against informers. There were not many of them, but they were quite vocal for a time. I think islanders are now far more able to acknowledge that the Occupation was not a black-and-white affair, that there were many shades of grey.
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Cathy is an unpopular, overweight 15-year-old. She is bright, and narrates her struggle with friendships, crushes and bullying in a way that transported me straight back to the trials and tribulations of being a teenager. Did you write this book with a teenage readership in mind?
Someone recently asked me who was my target audience for The Book of Lies. I replied ‘my immediate family’ and that’s the honest truth! I didn’t take it for granted that I would get my first novel published, so I wrote it for my mother (whose age we have conveniently forgotten), my grandmother (who was married in 1939) and yes, for my teenage nieces. I wanted to cut across the generations because that’s just what the story does. I think it does definitely have a big draw for teenagers, but in my experience most people remember their teenage years vividly, or try to equally hard to forget them, and I wanted it to be about the push-pull mechanism of memory.
The Book of Lies is full of secrets and deceit and as you read, you become convinced that both Charlie and Cathy are somewhat unreliable narrators. What challenges and opportunities did this present for you, as a writer?
To me this wasn’t a challenge; I tried not to think about it consciously. What I mean is, we are all unreliable narrators: we edit and shape the story of our lives. It’s not about outright deceit; it’s just what happens when we try to put experience into words. There is inevitably a layer of interpretation that can change everything. I was very struck by this even within the narrative of my childhood diaries, which I wrote quickly and directly. I was very good at turning something embarrassing into something funny (with the addition of a few exclamations marks and an explosive squiggle). It’s partly a way of coping. I suspect it’s our inconsistencies that make us interesting.
What made you decide to include footnotes in your novel? And were you ever worried it might distract from the narrative?
Cathy is the girl who writes ten-page essays when two would do. She over-interprets, she over-explains. She is all about the footnotes. Sometimes she is trying to be funny, other times she just wants to show off. But she is also copying her father – a self-professed ‘Expert’ whose use of footnotes is, I should point out, much more minimal and reasonable. I did worry they might occasionally distract from the story, so I cut a lot of them. Yes, there was so much more, dear reader!
The novel has garnered high praise from writers including Hanif Kureishi and Marie Darrieussecq. Who are some of your favourite writers? Did any influence you in the writing of this book?
I read so widely and weirdly, I can’t really think of an author who directly inspired me. Would it be strange to say Patricia Highsmith? I love Highsmith – in her novels madness simmers under this taut, smooth surface, and she uses humour brilliantly. I have a very deep admiration for Peter Carey, as well – the extraordinary way he can summon a voice. But, of course, considering the art of the footnote, I have to mention David Foster Wallace, whose writing I find brilliant, disturbing, unbelievably poignant and often hilarious. You have to find humour in the dark stuff. Well, I try to.