(Linen Press 2011); pbk. £11.99
Lynn Michell’s novel White Lies explores the issues of truth and memory against the backdrop of Kenyan political history, whilst also more broadly exploring the place of the individual in pivotal historical moments.
Michell’s story revolves around Eve, a middle aged woman caring for her aged and difficult father, David. In an attempt to make their time together bearable, Eve encourages her father to dictate his memoirs to her. At the same time, she acquires an old diary written by her deceased mother, Mary. As Eve simultaneously writes down and reads the story of her parents’ parallel experiences, particularly their time in Kenya at the start of the Mau Mau uprising, these tales provoke Eve’s own childhood memories of Africa. Michell develops a cast of realistic and profoundly complex characters sensitively. Using different narrative styles she is able to convey a sense of the different ages and perspectives of her various narrators, intertwining strands to show how fallible, subjective and indeed selective human memory is. Each character tells their own “white lies” for different reasons: to protect themselves; to shield those they love; to escape or exact punishment. Through these multiple views, positioned at different vantage points in time, Michell demonstrates how the same events can be lived and interpreted in entirely different ways by the people involved.
The novel deals subtly with the historical context, combining a good grasp of the time and location of the plot but also keeping it incidental to the human story at the heart of the book. This is not, in point of fact, a book about the Mau Mau. Human relationships are explored in a straightforward, unpretentious way, whilst still highlighting their complexity. Ultimately White Lies is a story about a family, and their changing interactions and feelings about one another. Michell says she has “always been interested in writing up the lives of other people and giving them a voice” and this is exactly what White Lies does. Though it provides dramatic context to locate the main story, events of the past are subordinated to the more mundane details of individuals’ lives, a more accurate representation, perhaps, of the way in which people construct their own life stories. Each of the three principal characters narrates their own version of the past, with omissions and additions which indicate the differing importance of aspects for each of their stories. As Kenya falls apart, Michell’s characters continue to tell personal stories- occurring on the periphery of the country’s independence struggle. As a result Michell exposes one of the truths of human nature, which is to situate our own personal dramas and tragedies at the centre of our life narratives, rather than historical events.
It is worth repeating that this is not a story about the Mau Mau. It is not actually even really a story about Africa, or Kenya. Though Michell conjures a convincing image of the country, it could in fact be set anywhere. Although readers may find echoes of E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India or Paul Scott’s The Jewel in the Crown,in White Lies they would be best not to expect much preoccupation with the post-colonial concerns. The exclusively white, ex-patriot central characters come into virtually no contact with any Kenyans, except their houseboy Malinge. Whether Michell is trying to reflect a certain historical truth (that contact with Kenyans would have been limited) or to use this invisibility of Africans as part of her characterisation, is ambiguous. The book is extremely readable, with good characterisation and plot development. Don’t expect to be enlightened much on Kenyan history. Do expect to be moved by some of Michell’s adept observations on the human condition.