To Tell You the Truth
Gilly Macmillan
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Buy *To Tell You the Truth* by Gilly Macmillan online

To Tell You the Truth
Gilly Macmillan
William Morrow
320 pages
September 2020
rated 4 of 5 possible stars

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There's the facts and the truth. On the night of summer solstice, June 1991, in Stoke Woods just outside of Bristol, Lucy's little brother, Teddy, goes missing. From that terrible night, Eliza--Lucy's childhood imaginary friend--becomes Lucy's lead character in her bestselling series of novels. As the novel opens, Lucy has just sent her latest Detective Sergeant Eliza Grey novel off to her agent. After the first novel published four years ago, the series exploded onto the crime-fiction scene. Consequently, Lucy and her husband, Dan, have gone from renting out a flat in a graffiti- and coffee shop-speckled neighborhood of Bristol, to living in a grand mansion near Stoke Woods, not far from the place where Teddy went missing.

Is it fluke or strange twist of fate that Lucy finds herself now living so close to her childhood home? Is Dan--who is clearly envious of his wife's literary success--showing a callous contempt for Lucy's feelings? Eliza seems to be the only constant in her life. Lucy sees Eliza everywhere, as though she's a character who has walked right out of the books and into Lucy's life. Lucy loves Eliza yet has had no idea that her value rests completely on her fictional character. After deciding to write her out of her latest book, her cold-hearted publicists, Max and Angela, refuse to publish it, telling her that it's "not sufficiently marketable."

Thus begins the novel's suspenseful set-up: the discovery of an abandoned car, a dead body, and a figure at the window, the posture of someone who could be threatening and seems to haunt Lucy's every move. Max and Angela try to pressure Lucy, but not before Lucy confesses to Dan, which jumpstarts his series of accusations. The situation is aggravated by his efforts to control her: "Did he even love me anymore and if not, what does Dan want?" She suspects that her gorgeous neighbor is flirting with Dan. Though she's angry with him, the exhausted, confused and frightened part of her also wants him. At night, she wakes up gasping from dreams, fighting for air. She's in danger of isolating herself from the world. For her part, as a heroine with a certain naivety, and a husband who might not be as loyal as he seems, Lucy recalls the character played by Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock's "Suspicion."

Macmillan's novel has a little bit of everything, including the suffocating atmosphere of most British thrillers. Once Dan suddenly disappears, leaving the scene, the infidelity aspects of the narrative pretty much evaporate. Lucy soldiers on, seeking to prove to Eliza that she doesn't need her--and prove to Dan when he gets back that she's hardly noticed his disappearance. Memories of what happened to Teddy continue to shadow Lucy. She begins to have a horrible feeling that she's become a pawn in the game that her husband is playing.

The tops of the trees in Stoke Woods seem "to bleed Lucy's memories like sap," as well as the boundary hedge close to where Lucy thought she saw the "shadowy man." The house seems colder than usual, the sort of chill that makes you tremble from inside out. Lucy's task is to find Dan and to recreate Teddy's last hours. Lucy builds a picture of Dan's web: "I was at its center, disorientated, uncomprehending and trapped." Was it a betrayal or malice? Or something else? Little shreds of anxiety fall around Lucy as she thinks about how she has loved Eliza for as long as she can remember; she loved Eliza as she loved Teddy. A great distance seems to have opened up between Lucy and real life; it frightens her that she can't remember what happened the night of the summer solstice.

The secondary characters pop in now and again to advance the plot and to notice things Lucy does not, particularly the relaxed, almost disheveled, DS Lisa Bright. Lucy knows there's more beneath Bright's officious demeanor. The Detective has calmness, a "feline watchfulness" that masks what she might really feel about Lucy. Bright is concerned about Daniel's welfare, but she also suspects Lucy. A subtle plot twist revolves around the Eliza Grey fan-fiction page. They've already found out that Daniel is missing. The narrative comes full circle, spinning back to missing Teddy, "the spirit King" and the summer solstice when the spirits were out to play, perhaps "crossing from their world to ours and back again." Other neighbors Barry and Vi remember Teddy, and they understand that Lucy was little Lucy Bewley from Charlotte Close who'd grown up on the other side of the woods from their home, whose brother went missing and who was accused of harming him.

The fact that Lucy discovers that Dan has been digging around in the most terrible and sensitive areas of her past increases Lucy's sense of unease. Lucy remains plagued by the vision of the edge of the woods and that her past is playing tricks on her: "I had a sense of being in an altered world." Clever and haunting, the novel is as much about Lucy's memories as it is a literary mystery centering on her love for Eliza and Teddy, of heat and fire and the sparks that flew the night Teddy disappeared in those fairy-tale woods.

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at Michael Leonard, 2020

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