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Simon Lelic

THE LIAR’S ROOM . . . Between the covers

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Imagine a world without liars. Imagine a world without novelists. OK, I know that we all know that novelists are, most of the time, describing things that never actually happened, but that’s what we pay them for. Lying is deeply embedded in the human psyche. Think of all the memorable quotes:

“If you tell a big enough lie and tell it frequently enough, it will be believed.”
“History is a set of lies agreed upon.”
“The visionary lies to himself, the liar only to others.”
“The worst part about being lied to is knowing you weren’t worth the truth”
“There’s only two people in your life you should lie to… the police and your girlfriend.”

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, in no particular order (put the name to the quote for a bit of fun, but no prizes, sadly) Napoleon, Jack Nicholson, Hitler, Sartre, and Nietzsche. In this brilliant new novel by Simon Lelic we have, in theatrical terms, an intense two-hander between Susanna (a counsellor) and Adam (a troubled young man). Just a couple of problems here, though. First, neither person is exactly who they claim to be and, second, Adam has abducted Susanna’s daughter Emily and, for reasons which emerge as this extraordinary dialogue develops, wants her dead.

This is one of those books which reviewers dread. Not because of the quality of the writing and not because the pages drag. The problem is that the plot is so fiendish and so beautifully designed to suck the reader into a series of emotional quicksands, that any commentary has to be very carefully judged so that it gives nothing away.

What I can say is that Susanna lives alone with her daughter in a house where there are secret drawers, hidden bundles of photographs and memories which are witnesses to Susanna’s past. A past that she hopes she has left behind, just as her visions of the dead have receded so that they are now merely mental shadows. You will learn that Adam is connected to Susanna. Connected by memory, circumstance – and by something much, much more powerful.

The Liar’s Room (interesting placing of the possessive apostrophe) starts with a tiny giveaway, but then proceeds at a leisurely pace before a real sense of menace kicks in. I am not sure if ‘chromatologist’ is a real word, but I think anyone who studies the science of colour would agree that there are places in this novel where the mood goes beyond black into a place where the emotional darkness is so intense that we have no words to describe it.

Simon Lelic (right) simon copyis a writer who views the human condition with what some might term a jaundiced eye, as witnessed in his previous novel, The House – follow the link to read my review. He is all too aware of our weakness, our fallibility, and the lengths we will go to in order to preserve our fragile sense of normality. He doesn’t judge, however. He simply reports. This excellent book shows just how shrewd, how perceptive and how entertaining – in a swirling and disturbing sense – his writing is. The Liar’s Room is published by Viking/Penguin Random House and is out now.

 

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BOOKS OF THE YEAR 2017 … Best thriller

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What constitutes a thriller? I suppose that could be one of those ‘how long is a piece of string questions’. I would hope that any crime novel worth its salt would be ‘thrilling’ in some shape or form, but for the sake of clarity, I’m excluding books which rely heavily for their impact on police investigations, or are given added ambience by an historical setting. So, what did I enjoy? Harlan Coben always delivers, and his renegade policeman Napoleon ‘Nap’ Dumas left official procedural behind and certainly did the business in Don’t Let Go. Domestic Noir has become a very fruitful field for many authors and publishers, and I enjoyed having the wool pulled over my eyes by Simon Lelic in The House.

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Another writer who kept one or two brilliant tricks up his sleeve was Tim Weaver when he gave us another mystery for David Raker to solve in I Am Missing. Michael Robotham played the ‘unreliable narrator’ trick when he challenged us to decide just which of the expectant mums was telling the truth in The Secrets She Keeps, while Karen Perry dangled several versions of the truth in front of us in a brilliant tale about memory, old friendships and illusion in Can You Keep A Secret? 

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unleashed1So, who thrilled me the most? First across the line by a nose, in a very competitive field, was Unleashed, by Peter Laws. Laws sends his alter ego, Professor Matt Hunter, to the dull south London suburb of Menham to investigate a Hieronymus Bosch-like scene at a primary school concert, where the highlight of the evening is the music teacher being found dead in a cupboard full of recorders, plastic tambourines and chime bars – with her throat ripped out, apparently by her own pet dog. Hunter’s investigations lead him to to 29 Barley Street, where a young girl was found hanging from a beam in her bedroom. The soul of Holly Watson, however, is not at rest, and her presence still lingers in the claustrophobic gloom of her home. Occasionally – and unashamedly – playing to the gallery, and using every colour on his palette, Laws paints a picture that disquiets us. He makes us think to ourselves, “This is nonsense, but …..” The ‘but’ is his key weapon. He evokes old fears, conjure up ancient and deep-rooted uncertainties – and makes us glad that Unleashed is only a book.

My verdict?

“Laws takes a leaf out of the book of the master of atmospheric and haunted landscapes, M R James. The drab suburban topography of Menham comes alive with all manner of dark interventions; we jump as a wayward tree branch scrapes like a dead hand across a gazebo roof; we recoil in fear as a white muslin curtain forms itself into something unspeakable; dead things scuttle and scrabble about in dark corners while, in our peripheral vision, shapes form themselves into dreadful spectres. When we turn our heads, however, there is nothing there but our own imagination.”

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THE HOUSE … Between the covers

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Do houses have souls? Do they retain some of the psychological warmth – or chills – of the people who have lived there previously? When a young couple, against the run of play in terms of the asking price, find themselves proud owners of a higgledy-piggledy house, they can’t believe their luck The previous owner has struck lucky in the romance game, albeit late in life, and has hotfooted it to Australia to be with his love. He has left the house ‘as found’, and this includes paintings, random stuffed animals and a plethora of clutter. And the ‘soul’ of this house? Once rid of the examples of the taxidermists’ art, Jack and Syd begin to transform the house into something more reflective of their own moods and personalities.

the-house-book-review-Simon-Lelic-credit-Justine-StoddartThere is, however, that strange smell. A certain je ne sais quoi which will not go away, despite the couple’s best efforts. When Jack finally plucks up the courage to climb up into the roof space, he finds the physical source of the smell but unpleasant as that is, he also finds something which is much more disturbing. Simon Lelic (right) then has us walking on pins and needles as he unwraps a plot which involves obsession, child abuse, psychological torture and plain old-fashioned violence.

The novel does pose one or two challenges. The first is that we have two narrators, Syd and Jack. We see events retrospectively. At some point we learn that they have challenged each other to write up their personal version of what has happened. Inevitably, their stories are not identical. While this is part of the charm, we do have to ask ourselves the key questions,”do we trust Syd or do we trust Jack? Do we believe both – or neither?”

This leads to the second challenge, and it concerns our judgment about the personality of the two individuals. I can only tell it as I see it, and for what it’s worth, neither came over as being particularly likeable. I am sure that there are dozens – hundreds, maybe tens of thousands – of perfectly worthy people who work in and on the fringes of the social services, but in fiction – and the perception of some journalists – there exists a stereotype. He or she is mild mannered, anxious, keen to please and with a tendency to be naively trusting when dealing with people (I believe ‘clients’ is the preferred word) who are scrabbling around, for whatever reason, at the fringes of comfortable society. Jack certainly has all his ducks in a row here.

Syd, by contrast, is spiky enough to give the biggest Saguaro cactus a run for its money. Of course, Lelic doesn’t just shove her on stage and make her behave badly without giving us her backstory. It is a pretty grim narrative and, trying to avoid any spoilers, I have to say that it is fundamental to what happens in the book.

This is a genuinely disturbing psychological thriller, and we are kept guessing almost until the last page as we try to make sense of what has happened. Not all new novels live up to the entertaining and inventive hype which precedes their publication, but this one certainly does. The House, by Simon Lelic, is published by Penguin and is out now on Kindle, and will be available in paperback from 2nd November.

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