We learn in the very first line of The White Lie that the narrator, Michael Salter, is ‘dead, that much I know for sure’. His death is the novel’s focus and, as the story unfurls, the events surrounding it grow thick with secrets and motives, layer after layer of possible truths and probable lies.
Michael was one of the youngest members of the Salters, a big, rambling family – in the book we get four different generations – who live in a big, grand, old house, which has been in the family forever. It’s the sort of family that would have had its heyday in the style of Downton Abbey and, in spite of the fact that several decades have since past, they still insist on dressing for dinner and gathering for afternoon tea. And yet it’s clear that the glory days are gone – no one eats much more than toast, none of the radiators gives off any heat, and, over the years, the family has been forced to sell off more and more land.
At the heart of the Salter family is the ‘white lie’ of the title, and it soon becomes clear that this white lie is not as trivial, or as easy to maintain, as had originally been anticipated. The lie concerns Michael’s drowning in the loch (don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler, you find it out at the beginning), but, like some kind of loch-dwelling monster, the lie has tentacles, stretching back into the past to another drowning in the loch, and reaching out into other family secrets and problems—Michael’s parentage, the theft of a painting, and the tricky relationship between Michael’s mother and her sisters. As the book progresses, the lie grows increasingly unwieldy, more and more monstrous, complicated and suffocating. The truth will – eventually – out, but it is a long torturous journey, packed with unexpected twists and turns.
Gillies tells the story by moving between different characters, different generations and different time periods, yet always circling round the key event of Michael’s drowning in the loch. Again and again we return to the drowning, but each time with a different angle, new information, another point of view. The endless circling lends the narrative a kind of entropic force, echoing the lie itself, as it builds up more and more momentum against the Salters’ efforts to contain it.
And the Salters try hard to contain the truth. The individual characters feel a collective pressure from the family to pull together, to keep it among themselves, to stop outsiders from penetrating their defences and learning the truth. While the Salter family does an awful thing in perpetuating the lie and preventing the course of justice, Gillies’s narrative is so subtle and nuanced that one can’t help but feel some sympathy towards them.
Alongside an urge to uncover the truth, one feels a kind of pity for this big old family, flailing in the modern world in which aristocracy has no place. They have lost their land, their money, connections and grandeur, and it looks like they might not have the house for long. The family is all that remains, so one can understand why it is they cling on to each other all the harder in the face of tragedy. The tug of justice goes against the tug of family, loyalty towards an individual against loyalty towards something bigger and older than that. It is a tension that makes for a truly gripping read.