This short, but memorable novel was first published in Italian in 2011, but – luckily for readers with no expertise in that language – it has been translated. The author’s name may not be familiar to many readers in English, but this is Mander’s third book and debut novel, and it is heartily recommended by this reviewer.
The plot is simple but devastating. Written entirely in the voice of the young protagonist, Luca, it describes the events surrounding the sudden death of his mother one night in her sleep, and how Luca covers up the death to avoid his greatest fear: being placed in an orphanage. The novel paints a convincing picture of the small world Luca occupies with a handful of others – his mother, his cat, Blue, his close friends at school and their families and the flower-seller he passes on his way to school. At the novel’s start, Luca describes himself as a ‘half-orphan’, a boy with a mother but no father, his father having disappeared around the time of his birth. He also notes his mother’s efforts to find him a new ‘father’, but none of her boyfriends become permanent residents. However, one morning, Luca’s mother does not wake up, and the terrible crisis of her death dawns on him. Terrified of what telling the truth might bring, Luca decides to keep her death a secret – his “first true lie.” He goes to school as normal, does his homework at his friend’s house, but all the while has to go back to a dark, freezing flat, where a strange smell starts to build, and the food begins to run out. The one creature who shares his secret is his young cat, Blue. Blue cannot speak, of course, but his actions and personality are so skilfully described in Luca’s voice, that he becomes one of the strongest characters in Mander’s novel.
The reader follows the story through Luca’s rambling voice. The First True Lie begins a few days before Luca’s mother’s sudden death, and ends a few days after it, but Mander does not take a linear narrative path. Instead, Luca’s story darts back and forward and runs along tangents, in often very funny (if blackly comic) ways. Most of Luca’s thoughts are about his mother, and the reader is gradually able to build a picture of an unhappy – perhaps depressed – woman who was never able to fulfil her artistic abilities, but who, nonetheless, raised a curious and enormously intelligent boy. Luca is too young to fully understand his mother’s actions. As he tells the reader, “Mama feels lonely even though she’s never alone, because I’m always here with her, but it must not be enough.” Her sudden death triggers his memories of her, their conversations and how she has behaved over the years, building a sad but very touching portrait of a mother and her son.
Although the circumstances Mander places Luca in are extraordinary, her evocation of the lively mind, thought patterns and speech of a young boy is utterly convincing. The suppleness in the language has been fully supported here by an excellent translation from Italian into English, a task which cannot have been easy with all the slang and idioms used throughout the novel. Overall, this slight novel is a highly skilled evocation of a boy’s relationship with his mother, which teases out the themes of family, memory, language and belonging. The First True Lie is a memorable and affecting novel, and is strongly recommended.