Click here to read reviewer Luan Gaines's take on The Lying Game.
Ware has been building a reputation as a writer of gothic Hitchcockian mysteries in which a group of friends--usually young women--are swept up in the insalubrious surroundings and into the orbit of a nameless and magnificently weird protagonist who either holds court or wants to murder them. In this case, new mother and civil service lawyer Isa Wilde is ambushed by a message from her old friend Kate Atagon, telling her that she “needs her” back in Salten. Just the sound of Kate’s name brings Isa’s past flooding back “like a vivid rush” to the time when Kate and her best friends, Fatima and Thea, concocted an outrageous arrangement to lie through their teenage years. This offer for Isa to join Kate and Thea in their scheme was the one simple action that changed Isa’s life forever.
For 17 years, Isa has unconsciously avoided the village of Salten and everything associated with that time. All her fears and anxieties have settled to roost on her six-month-old daughter, Freya, whom she floods with a “scalding drench of love.” Against her better judgment, Isa decides to return to Salten and the Tide Mill, Kate’s crumbling, isolated home where the sea’s searing brightness and the black country night masks the fact that the house is flooding from the Reach, an unpredictable body of water that circles the bucolic village. When Ida finally arrives and confronts Kate, she begins to retrace the ghosts of her chaotic past: Kate’s artist father, Ambrose; his adopted son, Luc Rochefort; and of course Kate, Thea and Fatima. Isa remembers vividly how the body stretched out on the rug, four shocked white faces stained with tears looking down on it.
The discovery of a human bone not far from The Mill jumpstarts Kate’s sense of urgency. With the arrival of Fatima and Thea, the four friends are together once more. Determined to hatch a new plan, the group desperately try to reason with what they did all those years ago, but first they must get their story straight before they’re pulled in for questioning by the local police: “we know nothing, we saw nothing.” Kate tries to quell the gossip led by vicious Mary Wren, who was one of Ambrose’s closest friends. As Kate attempts to explain that her old school friends have returned to celebrate Salten House’s Alumnae summer ball, Isa struggles to free herself from a past that shivers and blows in the Reach’s gentle summer breeze.
Ware arranges her players expertly as she binds Kate, Fatima and Thea together in an angry, guilty pact. There’s a lot of unreliability around the origin of their dark web of secrets and the lie that drags them back to a decades-old mistake that Isa thought they’d escaped: “we had spent seventeen years running and hiding, in our different ways, but it hadn’t worked.” Part of Isa’s conflict is that she thought she’d shaken this off when she left Salten House, this complicated web of local allegiances centered on the uneasy relationship between the village and the Salten House school. Finally enclosed in Kate’s small ,almost secretive Tide Mill, the girls are forced to confront “the lying game” and the echo chamber they thought they had left behind.
Ware makes us experience every detail, every insecurity and anxious moment from Isa’s first-person point of view. Traveling back to Salten is just the beginning of Isa’s descent into a landscape filled over and over by rumor, speculation and an edifice of lies and half-truths built up and fueled by the meager facts of Ambrose’s sudden disappearance. “Now looking back, I want to shake myself, the drunk blinkered child that I was, swept along with a plan so stupid that it somehow seemed the only way out.” As the story unfolds, it is obvious that the mutual teenage affection Isa shares with Kate has changed and cooled; even more distressing is that Kate suspects that Isa has shifted allegiance to Fatima and Thea.
Back in London, Isa’s partner, Owen, can no longer handle the way she keeps trying to negotiate between truths and lies. He begins to resent the way she seems to be spoiling for a fight, when she refuses to betray her friends by confiding their secret to him. Clearly Isa doesn’t want him to know the truth, but she also doesn’t want him to look at her and see the person who lied not just once but repeatedly. All is cast in furtive layers of suspicion as Ware’s frail young heroine finds herself overwhelmed by memories of Ambrose’s drawings, sketches that Kate said she had destroyed, the needs of baby Freya, and the memory of her bourgeoning attraction to Luc, a desire once forbidden and hidden away that begins to resurface like an anchor train, dragging Isa downwards.
Adding much piquancy to the novel are the settings, including the dilapidated Tide Mill on its little spit of sand and the eerie beauty of the salt marshes, the wide expanse of water with its heaped dikes and snaking ditches. Ware’s focus, however, is on the almost gothic unspooling of the girls’ relationships as well as Isa’s angst as she tries to let it all go, pushing the questions of guilt and innocence out of her mind. Ware also has fun contrasting the easy camaraderie of the girl’s early days, days that loop over and under “like maypole dancers,” with their attempts later in life to weave the truth around their years of lies and deception.