Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines's take on Little Black Lies.
With a vivid sense of place, Bolton draws us to the isolated Falkland Islands in 1994, just over ten years after the War where this distant archipelago still exists as one of the “last remaining scraps of the British Empire.” The plot of Little Black Lies is terrific, the author unfolding scene upon scene of angst and anger as the story’s central character, Catrin Quinn, ponders her ability to kill. Hijacked by anger at her childhood friend Rachel Grimwood for a terrible accident that Rachel committed several years previously, Catrin looks towards Rachel’s big house with the peacock blue roof and thinks about how killing her would be so easy: “For some time now I’ve had a sense of my life getting very close to its end.”
This is a part of the world that looks barren and desolate even when the sky is shining and the Islands seem “to have been spun from rainbows.” The Falklands are surrounded by one the harshest seas on the planet, the waters becoming a character and also a violent symbol for Catrin’s current state of mind. Living a self-enforced, isolated life in Stanley, Catrin has cut herself adrift from the world with only Queenie, her Staffordshire terrier, for company. Seeking the ghosts of all those she’s lost, Catrin recalls how her ex-husband Ben wasn’t alone in feeling the impact of the deaths of their two little boys. From her daily outpourings of rage and grief, invariably directed towards Rachel, Catlin faces a new challenge when she hears about the disappearance of yet another child, little Archie West.
Thee years and three lost children. The inhabitants are still reeling from the events of about a year and a half ago when seven-year-old Jimmy Brown went missing. A frantic search of the Islands turned into a coordinated operation. But no trace of Jimmy was ever found, and the boy’s presence became a ghost, melting into the past like a wisp of memory or a forgotten celebrity. Now with Archie gone, the town thinks there’s a pedophile in their midst since there could be no other explanation apart from the notion that maybe Archie fell off a cliff or was drowned in a peat bog. For the local police, though, it's a bit too obvious, or so the town’s Chief Superintendent thinks. As new characters enter the scene, everyone waves a flag of suspicion. There is motive and opportunity aplenty in such an isolated, windswept place.
As the search for Archie ramps up, Catlin joins the quest, although she’s constantly weary body and soul and almost certainly fed up with being forced to think about children who mean nothing to her. As the police and the military travel to the edge of Stanley, across difficult terrain and into a landscape that is bare and almost primal, the townsfolk begin to scream about serial killers and pedophiles. Catrin’s ex-lover Callum Murray also joins the team. Originally from Dundee Scotland and a former Second Lieutenant with the Parachute Regiment, Callum decided to stay on the Islands after the War.
Plagued by violent nightmares from the heat of combat, Callum’s confessions to Catlin about his post-traumatic stress disorder have given him an aura of vulnerability. Like so many soldiers, the suffering has taken the form of flashbacks into the conflict and are triggered by stress and anxiety. Plunging into a darker and more violent place than they could ever have expected, both Callum and Catrin decide to see if they can find Archie in the wreck of the
HMS Endeavour, and for the first time, Catrin realizes that someone close to her is an emotionally unstable trained killer who might think he’s back in 1982 and about to go into battle.
There is not a cutout character in this book: twisted Catrin, who becomes the prime suspect; tortured Rachel, a woman barely able to utter the details of her ordeal when she approaches the police with her own confession; Rachel’s
children; Mel, the flamboyant chef in the Glove Tavern in Stanley; the weather-beaten owner of the local diner.
Every character is drawn with sympathy and complexity. Callum’s appearance with Rachel drives Catrin further to the edge.
Unable to let go of her grief, she waits in silent futility for her little boys to return. Catlin’s anger does not go unnoticed in this remote community where some of the townsfolk are soon shouting recriminations. While Callum knows that Catrin
has been damaged beyond recognition--and probably beyond repair (“she still wouldn’t hurt a child”)--her diary shows a woman whose pain is so great that she’s prepared to become a monster rather than go on living as she was.
Because the story takes place in only six days and is told from first-person perspectives--first Catrin, then Callum, and finally Rachel--this mix of time and narrative gives an edgy tone to the novel while also reinforcing this constant sense of peril. Bolton also cleverly blends the dark mythology of Samuel Coleridge’s
"Rime of the Ancient Mariner" into the worlds of Catrin, Callum and Rachel, the poem of the dead albatross adding prescience to their lives and symbolizing their guilt and grief, which in turn propels the increasingly violent obsessions of Catrin, and Rachel’s torment as she quite literarily walks to the edge of the cliff.
Although I thought the narrative of missing boys fizzled a bit, and I really had to suspend disbelief at the outcome of Rachel, Catlin and Callum’s
weirdly twisted connections and calculations, Bolton is able to build her novel
towards a startling finale, taking us right to a dark and angst-ridden precipice
of secrets and lies where the fate of yet another little boy is eventually
solved in an unexpected flash of bait and switch.