The White Lie

by Andrea Gillies

A gothic tale of a declining aristocratic Scottish family, their dilapidated mansion in the Scottish highlands, and the poisonous effects of the secrets and tragedies it holds.

  • Format: Paperback
  • ISBN-13/ EAN: 9780544061033
  • ISBN-10: 0544061039
  • Pages: 464
  • Publication Date: 12/03/2013
  • Carton Quantity: 24

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  • About the Book
    “One hot summer day, Michael Salter, nineteen-year-old scion of a posh Highland family, disappears. When his childlike aunt claims she drowned him during a fight, the family close ranks. No police. No memorial service. No titbits for village gossips. A decade of deceit begins.” — Financial Times

    The Salter family orbits around Peattie House, their crumbling Scottish highlands estate filled with threadbare furniture, patrician memories, and all their inevitable secrets. While gathered to celebrate grandmother's seventieth birthday, someone breaks the silence. The web begins to unravel. But what is the white lie? How many others are built upon it? How many lives have been shaped by its shadow? Only one person knows the whole truth. From beyond the grave, Michael loops back into the past until we see, beyond perception and memory, how deeply our decisions resound, and just what is the place—and price—of grandeur.


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  • Excerpts


    My name is Michael Salter, and I am dead; dead, that much I know for sure. All the rest of it – all of that I can only speculate about. I’ve had a lot of time to wonder about it: what I’m doing here and what it means, though thinking takes me round in circles, like Pooh Bear hunting the heffalump in the snow and realising he’s been following his own footprints.
       My mother Ottilie was here earlier, in the wood, talking to me about misapprehensions and about guilt. She comes at least once a week and always on Sundays, from her cottage out at the coast, and she comes alone. Lately she’s been here almost every day and I’ve begun to act like somebody in hospital, alert at visiting hour for signs. I was watching as she came along the path this afternoon, a procession of one, slow-moving and stately in black. She came first to my memorial stone.
       “Michael.” She spoke as if I were close by. “Today’s the day. We think today will be the day.”
       I can’t remember seeing my mother ever wearing black before, but it’s the 14th anniversary of my disappearance here and … the truth is this hasn’t been any ordinary anniversary. She was unusually restless, walking along the beach, up and down, pausing at the furthest corners of the shore and struggling at moments with the depth of the grit.
       “It won’t be long now,” she said, looking out over the water which stretches almost to the horizon; a vast bowl of it, many fathoms deep. The domesticated green summits we see around us here are in reality only the tops of submerged mountains: that’s what my grandfather used to say to me, when I was a child. They say in the village that the loch has moods, that when the wind blows it isn’t only the waves that rise and surge; that when it’s a dark, dark brown it’s at its most dangerous; that when the surface becomes a mirror it will reflect your profoundest wants back at you. It’s been viscous as mercury today, resembling something poured and inert, as if a silver skin has cooled on it.
       Are you a ghost if nobody sees you, or are you something else? Ghost or not, I seem to have taken up residence in the grounds of the house where I was born, in the small wood planted here beside the loch in 1916. Not that I remember the moment exactly of arriving. Like the journey down the birth canal, some recollections are spared us. Too many, in fact. Memory reaches back, pausing at birthdays, Christmas mornings, the big conversations, key moments when we look into the eyes of our mother and know her in a new way; all the things that make impact on our little souls: the first bicycle, the first nightmarish week at the high school, the first proper kiss, the first cigarette and throwing up afterwards. I’m trying to get back to the earliest thing. I remember playing in the gardens at about the age of four, running along the sides of high topiary hedges. But for weeks and months that I know I was alive, there’s nothing, worse than nothing; indistinct traces left behind of something that’s gone.
       My mother sat herself down, sitting up straight-backed in her usual way, in a dress that reached almost to her ankle, a black scarf twisted into use as a hairband, her fringe flattened over her eyebrows. She rubbed gently at her shins and said, “Arthritis, apparently. I’m beginning to be old.” Her thick and wavy hair, glorious once, a pinkish-gold colour, strawberry blonde, is filling with nylon-like grey. When she was young she wore it very long, flying behind her like a cape, but it’s shorter now, and worn up, fixed by what look like chopsticks. At 52 she’s beautiful still, or at least I think so, despite the creases around her eyes and the sad marionette lines around her mouth, but she’s aged visibly since this time last year, when a gathering to celebrate a birthday was interrupted by startling news, news of me that certain of them had kept to themselves. I’m going to tell you about that, about my grandmother Edith’s party and what happened afterwards. There have been sad consequences, introducing a new era. Not that catastrophe is anything new. The family has had more than an average share of disasters, of premature deaths, one generation after another, such that people refer quite routinely to the power of the Salter curse.
       We’ve been going through a phase in which my mother is angry with me, though her visits take a circular shape, starting and ending with kindness. “You were such an idiot,” she said to me today. “How could a clever person be so stupid? Why, Michael, why did you put yourself in that position?”
       Her left hand wiped long tears from her cheeks, the movement rapid, like someone hoping to keep their crying unnoticed. With her right hand she lifted and dropped handfuls of shingle, pausing to inspect each palmful as it fell, looking at crumbs of grey-green granite, white quartz and orange sandstone. She has a labourer’s hands, square with big flat nails on the ends of workmanlike fingers, residual paint lingering in the creases, her skin rough and red from cleaning and turpentine.
       The sky was low and lilac-brown this afternoon, the sunlight streaming in fat columns from gaps in the cloud cover, like street lamps, pulsing its energy down. When Ottilie turned to face my way it was as if she looked right at me, though really she was looking back towards the house. Only the uppermost part of it is visible from here, through the trees, above and beyond the lime walk – a glimpse of turret, of crenellation, of the complex slate geometries of a swooping roofline: some French influence got mixed in with the Scots Baronial. It reminds me of an illustration from a book of fairy tales that I had once, a book that had been my mother’s.
       Peattie doesn’t have that same Sleeping Beauty’s castle look of being enshrouded in vegetation, though the gardens are thick with weed, the rhododendrons feral, the trees untamed, and in every direction elderflower and thorn have woven their grid.

    The history of the Salters is coming to an end, and if it’s hard to be definite about the attributing of malaise, there isn’t any doubt that the beginnings reach back to 1970 and the loss of another boy, Ottilie’s little brother, my child-uncle Sebastian. I’ve seen it, the death of Sebastian, although it happened before I was born. I’ve grown used to them now, these cinematic visitations, but I’ll admit that they were deeply disconcerting at first. They started one day out of the blue: I began to have (to see) memories that are not mine, that couldn’t be, because they pre-date me; they’re seen from the vantage point of someone who wasn’t there, as if the estate has its own record, soaked in deep and only just beginning to show itself. Perhaps it’s merely a kind of evaporation, a process without a point, though it’s hard to make a case for that: these are particular things and out of date order.
       My aunt Ursula’s arrival in the drawing room on the day I disappeared: that’s an event I’ve seen more than once. Alan’s and Ursula’s account of my death, Alan’s original version. In Alan’s old passport he’d written under “occupation” handyman-gardener, and then he’d added entrepreneur. He doesn’t live at Peattie any more, but really Alan was only ever the handyman-gardener’s son, a man without official...

  • Reviews

    "The true history of the Salter family lies at the heart of a web of secrecy and deception that is gradually unravelled... as the family realise that they are trapped in a cyclical pattern of their own creation."—The Times Literary Supplement

    "A really terrific read... Elegant, well written, genuinely gripping."—Joanne Harris, author of Chocolat

    "Absolutely searing... we have a major new talent in our midst."—Daily Express

    "Gillies handles her large cast and clashing version of events with a precision that makes reading this imaginative novel a fascinating process of discovery."—Metro

    "The prose is elegant and beautiful, and Gillies has a skill for creating both character and a sense of place; Peattie is so vividly described that I had no trouble imagining the crumbling interior or the sun-baked loch. I couldn't put The White Lie down."—For Book's Sake

    "Gillies excels both at describing the landscape and at delineating those subcutaneous secrets and shared assumptions that bind families together."—Literary Review

    "Fizzing with energy, suspense, and tense dialogue, this is an elegantly brilliant novel."—Red Magazine

    "Andrea Gillies, winner of the 2009 Wellcome Trust Book Prize and the Orwell Prize for 2010, writes in The White Lie as if she herself lived in Peattie House, as if she draped the dust sheets in the rooms of the dead. As frustratingly obtuse and uncommunicative as many of the Salters are, the author encourages our understanding by artfully teasing out hurts, coping mechanisms and shortcomings many would recognize."—Book of the Month, Scots Magazine

    "By the time I was half way through the book I was returning to it at every spare moment to find out what happened and it really wasn't what I was expecting..."—Bookbag

    "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... 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."—Emily Rhodes, Fiction Uncovered

    "A wonderfully compelling portrait of a family haunted by secrets and lies...pitch perfect on the chilling, devastating consequences of guilt."—Sally Brampton

    "A white lie is, by convention, a harmless thing… Gillies explores in this novel how such lies may be very far from innocent in intention or in effect… the truth beginning to work its way to the surface, like a swollen and decomposing corpse… She excels in her portrait of a landscape that consumes the merely human—eats it for lunch, as it were—and has slowly, over many generations, created a family in its own image."—Helen Dunmore, The Times

    "A subtle and sustained exercise in slowly revealing a dense story. Gillies writes magnificently on everything she touches, be it family secrets, Highland light, or the nature of memory."—Sunday Times

    "The White Lie is a story of decline, of a crumbling hierarchy taking desperate measures to save face (and the bloodline and the silver) before the hordes sweep them away. Yet, more than that, it is an account of the unreliability of personal history. Is a family story true because it is repeated? Does it matter in the end of the ‘truth’ is revealed, if the lie has been lived? This novel develops ideas of the fragility and fluidity of identity. We all self-mythologize. The strength of this immersive story is that it does not require neat revelations. The White Lie is, even with its detours, a page-turner. It is also, finally, very moving."—Francine Stock, Guardian

    "Gillies's descriptions are precise, particularly of gardens, food and clothes, and often wry. Gillies relishes the absurdities of dialogue... the slow torture of barely enunciated rivalries and feuds keeps the Salters at odds in a particularly cruel, sad and funny northern European way."—Guardian

    "There’s an echo of Virginia Woolf, especially To the Lighthouse, that lifts Gillies’ work above the average family drama. The fact that she also keeps a tight hold of the gossipy strands of her story is a great credit to her powers, too, as well as her ability to keep her readers guessing the truth to the end. This is an unusual, unsettling, often lovely story that plumbs the depths of what family means. It is a fine debut novel."—Lesley McDowell, Scotsman

    "A tense, taut tale of rumors and revelations, where festering guilt slowly unravels family secrets. Andrea Gillies’ beautifully-crafted debut combines page-turning aplomb with psychological insight. Ursula Salter claims to have killed her beautiful, angry young cousin Michael on the loch of her family’s Highland estate. The family close ranks, and convince the locals that he’s run away. Over the years, recriminations, shifting family loyalties and new relationships provoke seemingly unanswerable speculations: is Michael dead, who was his father, what was his relationship with Ursula? Gillies is a tantalizing storyteller, dropping in clues, vertiginous surprises and unexpected revelations."—Marie Claire

    "Set in the Scottish highlands, 13 years since young Michael Salter’s death was covered up by his aristocratic family. As past truths emerge, a web of deception unravels. An intricate, well-observed novel of secrets and guilt."—Woman & Home

    "There are many good things in Gillies’s novel. Her feeling for atmosphere is sharp, and the care she takes with drawing the Salters’ land and mansion pays off, creating an almost tangible picture of a raddled, embattled domain, a vivid stage against which events unfold."—Rosemary Goring, Herald

    "One hot summer day, Michael Salter, 19-year-old scion of a posh Highland family, disappears. When his childlike aunt claims she drowned him during a fight, the family close ranks. No police. No memorial service. No titbits for village gossips. A decade of deceit begins... Narrated by Michael from beyond the grave, Andrea Gillies's first venture into fiction after Keeper, her Orwell Prize-winning Alzheimer's memoir, unpicks the mesh of lies, some white, some not, that entangle the Salters... Gillies writes with a patrician elegance her characters might appreciate, bringing the closed world of the big house to life with cinematic clarity, the guilt-ridden residents as distressed as the threadbare furniture. The book has a pleasantly teasing quality, stealthily circling its central mysteries, challenging the reader to keep up while it flits between eras. A gripping exploration of the stories families tell about themselves, myths sometimes more potent than the truth."—Adrian Turpin, Financial Times

    Sunday Times June 2012 - One of "100 Essential Books for Summer"

    “An engaging saga about the Salter clan, loosely narrated by Michael from beyond the grave...Gillies’s atmospheric prose perfectly complements this engrossing drama set against a creepy loch.” -- Publishers Weekly

    "Gillies paints lovely, expansive landscapes and richly dimensional characters, which enhance the attractiveness of this intriguing first novel.” -- Booklist

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