Phillip Clement is back on crit duty with a look at another former Open Pen writer’s novel.
Jo Gatford featured in issue eight of Open Pen. Her debut novel, White Lies, won the Luke Bitmead Bursary in 2013.
White Lies, in review.
Jo Gatford’s debut novel is an engaging family drama that explores the complexities and dualities of grief, mental illness, familial rivalry and parental angst through a non-linear narrative that foregrounds the characters’ memories and the self-delusions that come to define their lives.
Little white lies are the most painful of all.
In White Lies, Matt, already struggling to come to terms with the death of his half-brother, is faced with the gradual decline into dementia of his father, Peter, and the acknowledgement that he is running out of time to learn the truth about his mother’s disappearance on the day of his birth. Meanwhile, Peter, tortured by his failing memory and besieged by the personal histories it returns him to, realises that his dementia may reveal the deceits he has struggled to keep hidden for so long.
Without doubt the chief success of Gatford’s inspiring debut is found in her narrative visualisation of Peter’s condition. Peter’s strand of the novel can be used as a map with which to chart his gradual decline, he navigates between the ‘real-time’ events of the novel and reported stream-of-conscious flashbacks into his past by the means of ‘doorways’ (literal and otherwise), and through these ‘doorways inside doorways’ he traverses the years. By foregrounding him as a character and granting him with an ability to be peculiarly frank and unflinching in his personal diagnosis of his state:
My mind does not simply play tricks on me, it tucks me into bed, sneaks out on tiptoes and runs naked through the streets while I sleep soundly, unaware of the damage it causes.
Gatford rejects the typical trope for a narrative that is ‘outside-looking-in’ and overly reliant on the reader’s emotional sensitivity to existing stereotypes about dementia and care for the elderly. With this nuanced technique and Peter’s voice established as the central driving force of the novel the reader is treated to a refreshing new perspective on the aging process and to end of life care:
We are the most fragile of fruit, rotting from the inside out while our skin puckers and our orifices slacken, bruising like two-week-old plums… Our eyes dim milky yellow, our ears grow larger but ever more useless, our teeth crumble in our mouths and our brain cells – having long stopped reproducing themselves – die lonely deaths, jettisoning random memories as the ship goes down.
until eventually ‘all that’s left is a sad collection of trembling, stained leftovers.’ Though of course these insights are possible only while Peter can address his lucid moments; despite the well-crafted familiarity of his narrative, in those sections that he is not present (or indeed prescient) the reader is painfully alert to his rapid decline.
Ultimately, the book is about individuals, the way they meet to become a ‘family’ and how they react to a rising heap of impossible situations. Something of this, and in Gatford’s nuanced use of the (subtle) magic realism in Peter’s doorways and the deceitful family dynamic, reminded me of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book; though the intended claustrophobia induced by a sustained exploration of dementia through the eyes of a sufferer is reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. However, the novel is not without its faults – I found that there was too much reliance on coincidence and parallel in the conclusion which hinted at too much contrivance, and occasional lapses in narrative logic shook me out of the text ‘as if I [had] been dug up and replanted, like a sickly tree’. That said, Gatford’s White Lies is an inspiring debut that will leave readers eagerly awaiting her next.
I am becoming more like a ghost each time I visit these memories; less able to move and unable to influence.
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White Lies (Legend, 2014), by Jo Gatford, is available now.