Family secrets are revealed at party in Andrea Gillies’ ‘The White Lie.’

The White Lie. Andrea Gillies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner. 448 pages. $14.95 in paper.
The White Lie. Andrea Gillies. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt/Mariner. 448 pages. $14.95 in paper.

Drawn back to the remote Scottish Highland estate where they were born, the extended Salter family is its own pressure cooker of human emotions. Trapped in the compound at Peattie by a complex of lies and secrets, four generations of Salters are primed to explode.

In this skillful cliffhanger by Andrea Gillies, whose memoir Keeper won the Wellcome Book Prize and the Orwell Prize in the UK, both reader and narrator Michael Salter uncover secrets at the same rate. With Michael as avatar, Gillies whisks us back and forth through time and space, luring us into the mystery with tremendous skill.

Unfortunately, 19-year-old Michael is dead, “dead, that's as much as I know for sure.” He's been dead for 14 years. Unless he isn't. Opinions vary. Bastard son of Henry's daughter Ottilie, Michael either does or doesn't inherit, depending on who his real father is, and Ottilie won't tell.

Sister battles sister, parents and grandparents and a few great-greats simmer in a tight society defended by lies. Ottilie despises her uptight twin sister Joan, and kid sister Ursula is banished when Ottilie's around. The senior Salters, Edith and Henry, aren't speaking either.

In the big house and outbuildings at Peattie, mysteries abound. When Michael vanishes in the loch where patriarch Henry Salter's only son died years before, the family circles the wagons. Nobody must know. In the upper classes, family comes first. Everybody has a different version of events, even great-great grandmother Vita and the late Great-aunt Tilly, who still inhabits the house. Don't even ask about once-handsome Alan, the gardener's son, still living on the place. He either did or didn't rescue Michael from the treacherous loch where other members of the family have died, although who, what and how this came down varies depends on who Michael hears from next.

“Consciousness is everything that remains of me here, and I'm confident this isn't heaven. If we can agree that death is what makes us human: the knowledge of it, the life that we live unaware of anticipating it — and I think that we must —then it follows that I continue to be human, because even now I'm afraid that it's coming.”

As family members gather for Edith's dreaded 70th birthday party, the tapestry of lies this family created blows apart.

Whatever happened, for 14 years the family kept Michael's disappearance a secret — some in fits of denial, others in an attempt to protect Ursula, who's always been weird. The family has lied about Ursula for years.

Meanwhile, there's a shrine to Michael in the woods, near the family crypt and a monument to a great uncle killed in World War One. Ottilie comes here to commune with her son, and over time, others drop by to meditate on their tribulations. Some visitors talk to him, while others are like figures in a movie playing inside Michael's head.

Michael shuttles back and forth between deep past and narrative present, nagged by the mystery of his parentage. Why won't Ottilie talk? “Bad news about my father; it's possible that it would have undone me worse than no news, so perhaps my mother's judgment was good. At least in the arena of ignorance there was also mystery, and mystery could talk itself into a romance.”

Edith flees the pre-birthday chaos to tell her former pastor about the day Michael vanished in the loch: “I didn't know what would happen next. I could see things spiraling. A really and truly horrendous spiraling. It could have broken the whole family. We all had our own versions, you see, of what had happened. It was vital we kept all having our own versions...”

This is the engine that drives The White Lie. People will go to any lengths to draw a tolerable picture of their lives, as Gillies demonstrates in this swift, compelling, beautifully drawn portrait of a family that will do whatever it takes to keep it together as the pressure mounts.

Kit Reed's recent books are “ Son of Destruction” and “ The Story Until Now.”

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