The Lying Tongue – Andrew Wilson

Tlt1 From Canongate in the UK, a larger paperback appeared last year, which looks like this: see left.

However on May 1st, 2008 a smaller copy is published by Canongate, which you can order here and which has the cover image below.  It makes no difference which one you get your hands on, but if you love exceedingly well written, disturbing, atmospheric and fraught psychological thrillers then you may want to get a copy ASAP.

Tlt2 This is Andrew Wilson’s first novel, but not his first book.  He previously wrote a biography of Patricia Highsmith and the inspiration is very clear.

The narrator in The Lying Tongue, one Adam Woods, when we are introduced to him, is well mannered, well spoken and eager to please and fit in.  Much like Ripley.  But his ease in fitting in satisfies his own underlying objective.

In a nutshell: Adam Woods has finished with his art history degree at university and wants to write a novel, set partly in Venice.  A student friend comes up trumps with contacts and Adam sets out to teach English to a teenager in Venice.  But his plans are thwarted on arrival; the teenager has been packed off to the US having been discovered as responsible for the pregnancy of the maid’s daughter.  However, the parents know of an old reclusive English writer who is looking for a personal assistant.  Adam applies and gets the job…

The reclusive author Gordon Crace is soon outed as eccentric, to Adam and to the reader.  He wrote one novel some forty years ago which was a bestseller and thanks to film rights on top, he’s been financially well served.  But, he has published nothing since.  Why?  He sets out rules at the start of their engagement and Adam is not to ask him anything at any time about his writing history.  An early conversation between the pair about Crace’s art collection has Crace talking gleefully about murder.  You get the sense that he finds it as juicy as the food and drink that he has delivered (or later, as collected by Adam) in Venice.

Crace has been living in squalor in his palazzo and Adam’s first tasks involve cleaning that could only be described as of ‘industrial’ proportions.  And here we have our first questions over Adam’s mental health: the young man approaches the cleaning with the vigour of an obsessive-compulsive, is that normal?

We have two main characters in an entirely claustrophobic setting – the waters of the Venice canals are merely heard lapping – and both have their own objectives in the relationship.  Adam’s we know, although they change.  Crace’s we don’t.  When Adam finds letters that focus on a potential blackmail of Crace based on his past and a keen and persistent interest from a renowned biographer to write a book about Crace’s life, Adam’s focus changes.  Crace’s life may be a sealed sarcophagus but Adam ditches his idea of a novel, as opening the lid on Crace’s life, and writing his biography is something that would serve him better.  Thus, Adam plunges into the further murky depths of the troughs of deception and what we discover about him makes us cringe at the very least.

The absolutely outstanding element of writing with this novel is the fact that there are no sympathetic characters, but it still makes for compelling and page turning reading.  Crace is suggested as blacker than soot through what Adam discovers about his past and Adam proves to be blacker than night in a blackout as you read on. Even minor characters are motivated by greed and little else.

Some reviews online suggest a ‘cat and mouse game’ but I think this is a misnomer.  The cat is always the victor in such circumstances.  Our feline friend will ‘play’ with the victim until bored.  Here, we have a game of chess with two masters on opposite sides and a potential periphery of others trying to bite the apple.  Many lie.  There are many lies.  And that’s the beauty of turning the pages of this novel to its bitter, harrowing and shocking dénoument.

Who is the better ‘master’ and how does it end?  I’ll leave you to find out through reading.

This is a novel of great suspense and great ingenuity.

I hated almost everyone in this novel, but I read on, compelled to reach the end.  It did not disappoint.  It had the opposite impact in fact: like hearing that the UK is now at war with …

A great read and Highsmith would be proud of the inspiration she generated in Wilson.  It starts with the words:

‘This is not the book I wanted to write.  This is not how it was supposed to be at all.’

In a very clever guise, who did, in fact, write the novel we read here?  You have to read to the end and every page is a wrong-foot in dancing class lessons.

An absolutely brilliant novel in the psychological thriller genre.  Don’t miss it.

3 thoughts on “The Lying Tongue – Andrew Wilson

  1. Josa Young

    Like the sound of this very much, particularly the idea of setting a book in Venice and then NOT giving us lots of Venetian colour, only sound. Will order it. x

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