Do not believe the title of “The White Lie,” the new novel by British memoirist Andrea Gillies. The central deceit, and the mystery the rest of the book unravels bit by bit, is anything but.
Set in Scotland at a grand but crumbling familial estate called Peattie and stretching in time across the 20th century and into the 21st, the book tells and retells, and then retells a bit more, the story of what happened to Michael Salter, the oldest grandchild, who disappeared at 19. He narrates the book and on the first page politely informs the reader that he is dead. This is the clearest the mystery of Michael will be for some time.
His eccentric aunt Ursula claims she has killed him. The rest of the family, horrified but unwilling to subject Ursula to the legal system, conceals this and says he’s run off. His reeling family attempts to move on, but the pressure and spiritual emptiness that accompany this early decision haunt everyone, from his grandparents, Henry and Edith, already crushed by the accidental death of their only son years earlier, to his cousin Mog, his closest friend, who finds herself unable to let go of him.
Gillies is keenly interested in what the lies we tell do to us, how they transform us over time, and whether the essential truth of something changes with the telling. “There are certain subjects that can’t be discussed: There are things that once entertained as possibilities set themselves into fact, though they are also just the sorts of things that retreat from factualness when reexamined,” Michael says, and so nobody in the family fights the decision to stay mum.
Gillies brings the reader to all angles of the days leading up to and away from Michael’s disappearance, as well as further back into his history, and into the lives of all the Salters. Within any given chapter, the time period might jump between Michael’s high school experience to two days after his disappearance, to his family discussing it a decade later.
The problem with this kind of structure is that it is inevitably a little confusing, and Gillies includes only one date at the beginning, then strays from it repeatedly. Tracking the distance from the novel’s main event becomes distracting, an issue compounded by the slightly too gradual reveal of new tidbits of information.
And even there are the questions of who knows what, and when, and does it matter? Gillies has a habit of building up to the revelation of certain information to a given character, only to have the character admit he or she knew the truth all along. For a book about the obstruction of truth, this leads to some halting of dramatic momentum, and some frustrating red herrings.
Michael himself remains a bit of a cipher. He’s obsessed with who his father might be and tormented by his mother’s refusal to tell him more about the mystery man. But as a narrator, he’s far more interested in his family members and their lives than in his own. The vagueness of his character lends an unnecessary added layer of mystery to the various iterations of the story of his disappearance.
While the book’s opaqueness and pacing give it a slightly blurry effect, the surviving family members are vivid and compelling, particularly Mog and Henry and Edith. All three are stubborn and frustrating in ways that ring true, particularly in their inability to effect change within the family.
By the end of “The White Lie,” the resolution of the central mystery matters less than the layers of lies and omissions that led to it, and answers, when they come, are perfunctory, and less notable for their substance than for the long-awaited lifting of the weight of secrecy. Protecting people at the expense of the truth, no matter how well-intentioned, finally proves a greater burden than the unattractive reality.