Thursday 23 November 2017

When school secrets return with the tide

Thriller: The Lying Game, Ruth Ware, Harvill Secker, hbk, 371 pages, €14.99

Pacing: Ruth Ware's book trails off after a promising start
Pacing: Ruth Ware's book trails off after a promising start
The Lying Game
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

It may be a little dull for a thriller but Ruth Ware's third book excels as an exploration of friendship and adolescence.

A group of thirty-something English women return to the small coastal town where they attended boarding school, drawn by an urgent summons from their friend Kate: "I need you."

Kate, an artist, still lives in her old house in Salten, a rambling pile that's literally sinking into sand and sea. In some ways, she's not that different from the girl the others once knew: she scrapes a living, smokes too much, has few ties or responsibilities, and keeps her distance from locals as she always did.

But her old schoolmates have moved on to some extent - physically, socially, professionally. Isa, narrator of The Lying Game, is a London-based lawyer with a six-month-old baby and happy relationship with Owen. Fatima and Thea, also London-based, are respectively a married mother and doctor who's rediscovered her Muslim faith, and a hard-drinking singleton who works in a casino.

Kate's urgent request is caused by the discovery of a body on the beach. All four know what that means, and bit by bit, the reader discovers it, too.

Their visit happens to be - in one of those clumsy coincidences which, I guess, are sometimes necessary in crime fiction - the same night as the annual school reunion. None have ever attended the event since leaving school 17 years before.

Isa travels down with baby Freya, reuniting with her old chums - their meeting straddling a tightrope between happiness and dread - and some unwelcome reminders of her past: a bullish busy-body, former classmates and teachers. The strongest wallop comes from meeting Luc: French-born stepbrother of Kate. He was once a beautiful boy but is now a damaged, possibly dangerous man.

It's gradually revealed that the four girls were expelled after a scandal involving Kate's father, an artist and art-teacher. He disappeared the same day. Could the body be his? And what's the big secret that's weighed down on Isa and her gang for nearly two decades?

Now on her third book, Ruth Ware is a bestselling author.

Ware's last novel, The Woman in Cabin 10, had a great set-up - basically, Agatha Christie on-board a luxury cruise ship - but fell away drastically from the half-way point, bedevilled by a painfully slow pace and some, ahem, titanic plot holes.

The Lying Game has the same faults: intriguing set-up, skilfully handled introduction of characters and main storyline - but then it trails off. The problem is that there really isn't that much to the book.

It clocks in at 371 pages, but could easily have been half that. The pacing, again, is very slow, which is fine in a literary novel - or, indeed, avant-garde Ballard/DeLillo mash-up - but holds back and drags down a mystery.

Very little happens, very slowly; the plot could be summarised in 10 sentences. The bulk is taken up with Isa remembering the past and obsessively mulling over every little detail of what's happening in the present. (She also obsesses over Freya, to an annoying degree, but we'll forgive that - first-time parent and all.)

The book is also badly compromised by a lack of plausibility. The girls' big secret/crime/misdeed, it turns out, actually isn't so bad.

It could damage them professionally, but isn't some grievous mortal sin, by any reasonable definition. It was stupid and illegal but not a major felony, and done for the right reasons; not the kind of thing someone would still dream about, guiltily, 17 years later.

Also, I'm not sure these women would still be so close: they knew each other for less than a year, and none have kept much contact with each other since they were 15. They're bound by a shared secret, but to this extent? This sort of thing breaks the spell; it makes you less likely to buy into a story and care about the characters.

Where The Lying Game excels is the way Ware captures the essence of friendship and adolescence. Isa, Kate, Thea and Freya are well-drawn as adults, but portrayed incredibly vividly as kids.

That mid-teen mix of cockiness and self-doubt, their burgeoning sexuality, the risk-taking and affectionate piss-taking, their tightness as a collective (the title refers to how they used to spin tall tales to people outside their group, for mischievous amusement), the sense that life is full of intoxicating possibility and you're immortal - you'll feel as though you knew these girls in real life. You probably won't like them, but you'll know them.

So, funnily enough, The Lying Game works better as a Cat's Eye-style exploration of female friendship. As a thriller, it's too dull and insubstantial to ever really thrill.

Darragh McManus's novels include Shiver the Whole Night Through and The Polka Dot Girl

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