White Lies, a debut novel, contends with the darker side of family life, focusing on deceit in particular, while also delving into the difficulties of mental illness in a plot that oscillates from the predictable to occasionally surprising.
Peter is a dementia sufferer that has recently been relocated into a care facility where he spends his time cantankerously moving between sanity and the delusional flashbacks that he believes he can control. He’s grumpy, callous and obnoxious; he even breaks the cardinal rule of parenting, disregarding his eldest son (Matthew) in favour of his youngest (Alex). Matthew is a thoroughly unlikeable character with a whining, adolescent attitude and cold-hearted approach to everyone and everything in his life, all the while complaining about the results. His initial reaction to a hole in the plasterboard of his wall that signifies the death of his younger brother is, “‘I’m never going to get my deposit back’”, and despite his sibling’s demise, constantly insists on referring to Alex as his “Half-brother”, deliberately correcting others’ allusions to their relationship when they deviate from this. These two form the pattern for all of White Lies’s characters, who are largely loathsome, with only the occasional redeeming acts speckled throughout the story. This choice of characters is a bold and risky one by Gatford, especially given society’s focus on mental illness at the present, but it’s a decision that pays off, and characterisation is the outstanding feature of the novel.
However, the problem with the novel is Gatford’s narration. It alternates between Matthew and Peter in a storyline that fluctuates between the present day and frequent flashbacks from both characters which increase with the novel’s progression. While the intention might be positive, whether it be as straightforward as portraying both sides of the same story, or as complex as inserting the reader into the shoes of a dementia patient with the attendant lack of cohesion, the novel’s execution doesn’t achieve the goals in question. The storyline feels awkward and clunky, and rather than flowing as one coherent albeit complex narrative, the four separate accounts seems forcibly jammed together making the plot both hard to follow and difficult to enjoy. Furthermore, there are other issues such as the awful dialogue, with expletives seemingly dropped from a great height, predictable plot twists, an unremarkable setting and also unsuccessful attempts at symbolism.
The text isn’t a complete write-off however; Gatford’s development of character in the novel is relatively skillful and daring especially since, in relation to the two main protagonists, Matthew and Peter, she has opted for unsympathetic and contemptible characters. Yet reading White Lies feels somewhat like being asked to chop vegetables with a blunt knife; the job gets done in the end but it requires too much effort to get there. Gatford’s intentions are admirable and the ideas are adequate, but the overall execution lacks the refinement required to execute the principle of the novel whilst maintaining the reader’s enthusiasm. These various issues mean that, while Gatford’s subject matter and intentions are good, overall, White Lies disappoints.