The truth is underrated: A review of “The White Lie” by Andrea Gillies

Some time ago I read a book called “The White Lie” by Scottish writer Andrea Gillies. I want to write about it because it was a very interesting, if not completely successful, book.

The thing that intrigued me about The White Lie is that it’s written from the perspective of a dead person, Michael, and spans decades and generations. The book actually starts with a family tree, and to me this is like a flashing neon sign that says “THIS BOOK WILL BE CONFUSING.” And it was – several people who are referenced are dead, and the family, a noble Scottish clan whose patriarch lives in a manor dating to, one assumes, medieval times, has a tendency to recycle names. Thus Ottilie is Michael’s mother and also his great-great-aunt, or possibly his great-grandmother (see what I mean?), but generally this doesn’t prevent you from following along.

Spoilers in wait beyond this point

The plot goes thusly (major spoiler alert!!!): Michael is killed by his aunt in a boat accident – she hits him with an oar and he drowns. (It’s not clear what’s going on with his aunt exactly. She’s very intelligent but lacks basic social skills and acts like a 10-year-old, so maybe something on the autism spectrum? We’re not told, and it seems the family has not tried to figure out exactly what it is). Anyway, the family, in an attempt to protect the aunt from prosecution and save themselves from scandal, tell a white lie – that Michael ran away from home. But Ghost!Michael can now see everything that has happened in and around the loch where he was killed; memories of ugly past events from his family’s unfortunate history. As it turns out, there is a long list of white lies and cover-ups and secrets that family members have been keeping from one another, and Ghost!Michael sinks into every one of them until you don’t know what’s true and what isn’t, until you wonder whether Michael was actually killed in the boat accident or if he survived that but died in some other way at some other time.

If you must haunt, this isn't a bad place to do it. Photo by Moyen Brenn via Flickr.
If you must haunt, this isn’t a bad place to do it. Photo by Moyen Brenn via Flickr.

That aspect of the book’s structure is really interesting and to me, quite unique – the book goes from a calm if depressing certainty, that Michael is dead and his aunt killed him, and becomes more and more uncertain until you reach a peak, a crescendo, where everything is true and everything is false and you start to doubt the basic premise of the story, that Michael is really dead. But as the story winds down things become more and more clear, and one incident in particular, the incident that Gillies certainly wants us to think of as the starting point, becomes exceedingly obvious. That’s part of the reason why I enjoyed the book – by the time Gillies is ready to reveal to us this major point, most readers will have already guessed it, so she doesn’t make a big deal out of it. She knows, we know, but it has to be said to break the hold it has over us as readers and over the family itself. This is where the book stumbles, because ultimately the family’s secret stays a secret to some of its own members, and so the pressure of the book is never fully released. It may be more realistic that some secrets are always kept, but it’s not as artistic.

Another point I didn’t like was that the Gillies, while otherwise successful at painting three-dimensional characters, resorts to a black-and-white characterization between Ottillie, Michael’s mother, and her twin sister Joan. Joan becomes a kind of evil twin to Ottillie despite the fact that Gillies recognizes Ottillie’s personal flaws. Yet Joan is portrayed as vindictive and mean-spirited in a way that Ottillie never is, even though, in my view, she is just as bad if less obvious. Perhaps it’s just that we cannot trust Michael’s narration – she is his mother after all, and he’s dead. But even so, Ottillie’s ultimate explanation for some of her choices, which I won’t share here, left me feeling disappointed in her character and even turned off by her. I felt that we were expected to buy into Joan being this bad person and Ottillie having somehow been the victim of her sister’s admittedly nasty attitude, but I just couldn’t accept that.

Ultimately, The White Lie is a book that feels familiar while at the same time going beyond conventional plot forms, and I greatly appreciated that. Definitely a great read and one I would recommend to those looking for something out of the box.