Gilly Macmillan’s latest novel To Tell You The Truth features the ultimate in unreliable narrators, as past and present events in Lucy Harper’s life seem to align with disturbing similarity, when an unsettling house move forces her back to the scene of a traumatic childhood event.
Lucy Harper has a talent for invention…
She was nine years old when her brother vanished in the woods near home. As the only witness, Lucy’s story of that night became crucial to the police investigation. Thirty years on, her brother’s whereabouts are still unknown.
Now Lucy is a bestselling thriller writer. Her talent for invention has given her fame, fortune, and an army of adoring fans. But her husband, Dan, has started keeping secrets of his own, and a sudden change of scene forces Lucy to confront some dark, unwelcome memories. Then Dan goes missing and Lucy’s past and present begin to collide. Did she kill her husband? Would she remember if she did?
Finally, Lucy Harper is going to tell us the truth.
I have to admit that I’m always a little wary of books where the main character is a writer, but Gilly Macmillan uses Lucy Harper’s day job to such good effect here that any qualms were quickly swept aside.
Although Lucy’s married, she spends a considerable amount of time alone with only her imagination for company, and I could well believe how she might find it harder to distinguish between what is real and what is imagined.
It feels only too likely that confusion might arise when a writer’s work takes her inside her own head, where the boundaries between worlds created and those actual and lived in can become blurred and less distinct, especially during intense writing sessions leading up to a deadline for a book or when she has only recently emerged from that all-consuming period of work.
This also helps to explain why Lucy appears to zone out and be elsewhere at times, enabling Gilly Macmillan to realise a credible connection between something straight out of Lucy’s childhood that accompanies her into adult life, while allowing us to see its influence on her and her career.
The added bonus here is that Lucy Harper is not just any writer but the author of a bestselling crime series. This means that she carefully considers how her narrative plays before saying something and any omissions from her story to the police or others can be put down to her skill and experience gained as a crime writer. Lucy either believes herself to be ahead of or at least keeping up with the professionals because of what she knows from having researched and written her books.
Even when she’s dealing with the civilians in the book, she thinks she knows exactly what to say and when, and just how much information to hold back, and why, to satisfy their interest, throw them off the scent (or rather stench) of her secret, or in order to get them to tell her what she needs to know.
Layer upon layer, each informs and shapes the story she tells herself and us, the reader. Add to this already potent mix Lucy’s husband, Dan, who also had aspirations of becoming a successful writer and is now seemingly reduced to being her assistant and living off her earnings, but who asserts himself in more manipulative ways. Now place them both in a private lane full of neighbours with secrets, inadequacies and jealousies as big as their houses, leave to simmer and wait for Lucy’s old and new lives to collide and bubble over.
All in all, it’s a captivating combination which, when taken together with events in her adult life seeming to mirror and threatening to bring that traumatic event from her childhood back out into the open, all make for a unnerving psychological thriller in which it’s not always clear what Lucy actually sees and what she can only imagine. I kept questioning whether Lucy was losing her mind, genuinely in danger, or if she was simply messing with mine?
To Tell You The Truth is way more tricksy than its title suggests; scenes in the novel flicker and flare like the figures dancing around the bonfire in the woods on that fateful Summer Solstice, when a nine-year-old girl went in search of woodland spirits, who for this one night would be mixing with real people and making mischief until dawn. It’s only when she returns home and tries to tell the story each time – to her parents, to the police and, perhaps most importantly to herself – that the night’s mischief reveals itself in all its utter devastation.
To Tell You The Truth is a brilliantly bruising daymare of a thriller and I relished how cleverly Gilly Macmillan structured this, playing mind games with me and Lucy Harper, and keeping me guessing until the very end.
To Tell You The Truth by Gilly Macmillan is published by Century, an imprint of Penguin Random House. It’s available as an audiobook, ebook and in hardback from 25 June 2020 with the paperback due out next year. You can pre-order it from Amazon UK or buy it instead from Hive where each purchase helps support your local independent bookshop.
My thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy via NetGalley.
The blog tour for To Tell You The Truth runs from 17 – 24 June with all the dates and stops (by Twitter or Instagram handle) detailed below: