“The Truth and Other Lies” Sascha Arango (Simon and Schuster) – novel review

The Truth and other Lies Sascha Arango book coverHarry Hayden is in a hell of a mess. His name adorns novels written by his wife, whom he’s accidently murdered by shunting his mistress’s car off a cliff without knowing his wife, rather than his mistress, was inside. His mistress is pregnant. He’s falling in love with the mayor’s daughter. A bitter, obsessive man, who had known Harry when they were both boys, could reveal Harry’s past and has taken a room in the seaside village where Harry lives. There’s a small matter of a marten which has made a home in Harry’s roof, creating scrabbling noises and bad smells.

Harry reports his wife as missing, presumably drowned and tells his publisher that the next novel is twenty pages away from completion. That’s true, but he omits to mention that the novel will probably never be completed because its author is dead. His mistress reports her car has been stolen. The police seem to accept that Harry’s wife is missing, presumed drowned. Currently, while there seems to be nothing to link him with his mistress, Betty, other than their natural working relationship (she is an editorial assistant at his publisher) and gossip which he can bat away, and no evidence to suggest his wife’s drowning is anything but a tragic accident, Harry knows he’s OK. But he also knows that if his wife’s body is washed ashore, if the police discover Betty’s car underwater, his situation will quickly unravel. He starts spinning half-truths and lies to keep the inevitable at bay. When Betty’s replacement car is discovered after an explosion but no corpse is found in the burnt-out wreak, Betty is assumed murdered. She had what’s thought to be the only copy of the manuscript of Harry’s unfinished novel with her. Harry has an alibi: he was due to meet her at a crowded restaurant where every patron and the staff can confirm his alibi. Harry, used to thinking on his feet, uses the fact that the truth of a situation depends on the perspective of the person viewing it, concocts a story that links his wife’s presumed drowning and Betty’s disappearance satisfactorily enough to provide the answers everyone seems to be seeking. But then, the publishers discover Betty made a copy of the novel and Harry’s wife had posted the final twenty pages before her presumed drowning. Can Harry keep up his pretence?

Initially Harry doesn’t seem to be particularly sympathetic. However, his wife, Martha, did not want to publish her work; she just wanted to be left alone to write it so was happy to publish under Harry’s name. Readers learn fairly quickly that Harry spent his childhood in a succession of grim care homes where an ability to lie and an instinct for survival was necessary. Martha knew about his affair with Betty but did nothing to stop it. She tells Betty that you have to love Harry without knowing him. It doesn’t occur to Harry that Martha might be using him. Readers only get to know Martha through Harry’s eyes which see the truth he wants to see. He doesn’t pry through her things so she remains something of an enigma. Martha’s absence doesn’t stop her influence on Harry’s life and she still remains a key character.

Betty too is a weaver of fiction. Ambitious for the publisher where she works, she sees herself as Harry’s gatekeeper, keeping media intrusion at bay and enjoying an affair with the publisher’s most successful author. She has no dreams of Harry leaving his wife until she falls pregnant. She fools herself into believing that Harry will leave Martha and he wants her to have his baby. Although Harry does nothing to shake her fantasy, Betty fails to realise that his childhood is a place of fear and fatherhood for him is unthinkable.

The situation is handled with a large shot of dark humour which keeps the reader’s empathy with the characters. “The Truth and Other Lies” has to be read as comedy: the deceased characters are treated as if they are merely waiting in the wings ready to re-emerge when the script demands. If you’re looking for an entertaining, pacey, tragicomic, rascal of a story-teller, Harry Hayden’s your man.

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