The Telling of Lies – Timothy Findley – Book Review

The Telling of Lies – Timothy Findley, copyright 1986.

Publisher: Penguin Canada

Pages: 311

Source: Personal Collection – Purchased New

I have to be upfront with you. I am a huge fan of Timothy Findley; he is, by far, my all-time favourite author. Consider yourself warned. If this book review seems in any way biased…it is shamelessly so!

Vanessa Van Horne, modern day middle-aged photographer and former prisoner of war, has returned to Maine to spend one final summer at her much loved, life-long summer retreat, the Aurora Sands Hotel (ASH) The hotel is scheduled to be torn down at the end of the season and everyone wants to make their final summer here one for the books. When an enormous iceberg appears one morning off shore from the ASH (yes, you read correctly, summer time, Maine, iceberg) all chances of this summer’s memories fading anytime soon are whisked away. Unfortunately, the arrival of the iceberg isn’t the most chilling event in store for the season. A damper is put on the iceberg excitement when Calder Maddox, another life-long guest and prominent business man is found dead on the beach from an apparent stroke. Right from the get go something seems amiss. The police arrive late and behave irrationally in the face of what appears, to everyone else, to be the very natural death of a very old man. Vanessa and her cousin-in-law Lawrence begin poking around and asking questions about some obvious irregularities in the way the death is handled. It isn’t long before it becomes apparent that there is a murderer in their midst and they take it upon themselves to get to the bottom of things. It is only when CIA agents start springing up that it occurs to the pair they may have bitten off more than they can chew.

One of the most compelling aspects of the story for me was the various asides telling the tale of Vanessa’s time in the internment camp at Bandung on the island of Java during WWII. The entire story is written as entries in her journal and here she speaks so openly (to us, the reader, not to her friends) about her experiences inside, some of which were heartbreaking. What really got me about this was the contrast Findley plays on between the atrocious nature of camp life and the infrequent touching moments in which some kindness takes place or some truth is mutually understood between prisoner and captor. “No one is totally monstrous: not even monsters.” This is what Vanessa was told in prison and it is clear that it has become a proverb by which she lives her life. In the end, it becomes very much a theme of the story itself.

“I will dedicate this book to Colonel Norimitsu – who, with one hand, killed my father and with the other made of my father’s grave a garden. Death before life. So very Japanese.” – The Telling of Lies, page 9.

Like every other novel by Findley, The Telling of Lies is a page turner. To my knowledge, it was Findley’s only foray into the mystery genre, but it is certainly no less a masterpiece than any of his other works. The idea of Findley writing a mystery novel took me a little while to get my head around and I was slightly disappointed that he did not hold true to his trademark use of historical characters and blending of historical fact and fiction. I have always found those characteristics inject his stories with a sort of intrigue that constantly sends me back and forth between the story and Google. Though this aspect was lacking, Findley’s beautiful prose were once again at their utmost best accompanied by a wonderfully compelling plot.

I have just one serious bone to pick, but it is not with Findley, rather with the book’s publisher, Penguin Canada. Penguin includes a six page introduction in this Modern Classics edition which outlines Findley’s inspiration for writing the novel and his basis for some of the characters. It also comments on a male writer creating such a wonderful story with so many pertinent female characters. I found the introduction to be very informative, but near the end, they took it upon themselves to suggest to the reader things he/she might want to think about and watch out for while reading and I didn’t much like that. I kept pondering those things throughout the story and found myself getting very distracted by them. If the publisher wishes to include the equivalent of reading questions or Coles Notes, they would best be advised to stick it in the afterword rather than the introduction. Dear Penguin, Please don’t spoil my read!


About Robbie

Hi there, my name is Robbie Burns (no,really, that’s my name…hold the haggis jokes please) and I would like to welcome you to the Pink Sheep Cafe. I started this blog as a means of discussing books and all things literary in light of my perpetual isolation. At the time I began writing, I was living in Split, Croatia. There wasn’t much here in the way of English book clubs and I couldn’t work, so I badly needed something to help me bide my time. My partner and I have since left Croatia and returned to Canada to live in Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories. When we first moved back here, my blog writing sort of fell by the wayside, but now I seem to be back on track. I try to read and review a little bit of everything here; I think everyone can find something to their liking here. I find myself tending more towards more literary reads these days, but I also enjoy a lot of YA and children’s fiction. One of my ongoing goals is to work my way through all of the Nobel Laureates. My two most favorite authors are Timothy Findley and Halldor Laxness.
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4 Responses to The Telling of Lies – Timothy Findley – Book Review

  1. Pingback: The, Apparently, Homeless Book Meme | Pink Sheep Cafe

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  3. keila mansour says:

    You commented that the novel did not have a mix of historical and fictional facts. This is not true, the hospital in montreal Canada that experimented on people actually exists. Unfortunately these experiments really did take place, and michael was Findley’s fictional victim of these experiments.

    • Robbie says:

      Yes, I suppose what I meant to convey was that this book did not show the same characteristic trait of Findley’s other novels of basing the plot around a plethora of historically accurate facts. You are quite right though, that was one element that was indeed factual.

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