In the summer of 1989 there was a fire at Gallows Hill. Two school girls, Kat and Jude, managed to escape the blaze. Jude found her way back to the rest of her classmates, while Kat was discovered unconscious by the roadside. What happened before the fire changed the course of both their lives.
Twenty-five years later, Katy (formerly Kat) is the woman who has it all: great job, attentive fiance, a house in the right neighbourhood and a baby on the way. But just when Katy thinks she’s finally going to get her happily ever after, Jude makes an unwelcome reappearance in her life and threatens to take away everything katy has worked for.
At the same time, Katy and her family meet with a series of misfortunes and someone keeps prowling around her house at night.
The Lies We Tell is a sinister story of deception, privilege and long buried secrets.
The narrative is divided between Katy in 2013 and Jude in the months leading up to the incident at Gallows Hill in 1989. Every few chapters there’s also some rather arch asides from grown-up Jude that, frankly, the story could do without.
There’s a lot to like about this book. The plot is well-crafted, it twists and feints and keeps the reader guessing. The pacing is a little slow for my liking, but there was enough there to hold my interest. That said, there’s something off in the tension. Carter pulls it taught only to let it fall slack at odd moments and it’s unclear what’s supposed to be a mystery and what’s not. For example, the reader learns early on that Jude has a son, and there’s a male character about the son’s age with Jude’s last name who appears again and again throughout the story. This guy is clearly her kid, but it’s unclear whether the reader is supposed to pick up on who he is and what he’s doing. Carter keeps giving too-obvious-to-miss hints about this, but falls shy of stating his identity; it’s this weird half-secret throughout the book.
Similarly, the story opens with a vivid description of what happens to the girls when they sneak off during their school camp at Gallows Hill: Jude is dragged into the bushes and presumably raped by an unidentified assailant. Kat runs for help, takes the wrong path and gets lost. For the next twenty-five years she feels guilty for running away and not doing more for her friend. The scene is described in third person: an objective account. But later the reader finds out that, actually, this is only Kat’s memory of what happened (though it’s not narrated as such) and that this scene, for all it’s detail, is a fabrication. It would work fine if Kat was the narrator—first person narrators lie all the time, it’s part of their charm—but written as it is, it reads as a cheap play at misdirection. This happens a few times throughout the book. The story is built on this scene that keeps shifting. It’s a clever idea: what you think you’re looking at turns out to be something completely different. But Carter fumbles the execution.
Katy and Jude have a good dynamic, it’s the classic angel in the house vs the mad woman in the attic. Only, like Daphne du Maurier before her, Carter makes an effort to show that these archetypes are somewhat misleading. Katy enjoys certain privileges that allow her to play the good woman while the thoughtless actions of powerful men force Jude into bad situations: she has to be cunning and a little devious to survive. As a character, Jude reads as uneven, but Carter clearly paints her as the villain. She’s also a ‘slut’ and the bad things that happen to her are framed as either direct or indirect consequences of her promiscuity, while Katy is restrained, chaste and thus good; the narrative proper begins with her refusing sex:
…Katy listens to Michael’s breath as he undresses. Feels the mattress dip as he lowers himself down beside her. Then he tries again, gently squeezing her shoulder this time. Getting no response, he runs his hand downwards and strokes her breast. His touch is light but determined and despite herself she feels the nipple harden. Strengthening her resolve, she lies still.
Going a little deeper, it could be argued that the conflict between Katy and Jude represents the struggle between the domestic and the untamed that exists within all women. In many ways it reminded me of du Maurier’s Rebecca (probably not a coincidence given the rhododendrons that decorate the copse at Gallows Hill). But unlike Rebecca with it’s unnerving take on ‘happily ever after’, The Lies We Tell ultimately reaffirms that the domestic, maternal and virginal are ‘good’ and to be embraced, while the wild and sexual are ‘evil’ and must be repressed and punished. Whether intentional or not, it’s a message that makes me uncomfortable.
For me, The Lies We Tell reads like a domestic-thriller-by-numbers. It’s solid, with all the right components, but it failed to engage me. It was just a little too slow, too predictable and Katy is unlikeable without being interesting. I couldn’t really bring myself to care what happened to her. Jude is more compelling, but she’s also arch and, at times, unbelievable. I’ve read a lot of really positive reviews for this one, and I can see the appeal, but it didn’t get my pulse up.
Thank you to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
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