Nora Tobias, the central character of Julia Gray’s intense psychological thriller, is most definitely a liar. She confesses as much in the opening pages of the book which – in her words – is a chronicle of the events that led her to a retreat in the Scottish Highlands to recover from physical and mental trauma. It’s an immediate challenge for readers: how much of Nora’s story should they believe? How honest is she really going to be?
The story that she tells is certainly enthralling and disturbing. Nora’s description of her interaction with an art teacher at her school opens the book and, a Lolita tale turned upside down, sets the tone, revealing not just her extraordinary ability to deceive others, even her mother, but the frighteningly ruthless way she will deploy it to get what she wants, and particularly to get her revenge for perceived slights. It’s a gift that should be channelled into acting and the opportunity arises when an older girl, Bel – flamboyant, erratic, fascinating – recruits Nora into her production of Cinderella. Bel’s mother, now dead, was a famous actress and her father is a well-known film director. The more Nora sees of Bel’s life, the more she wants it, and when the opportunity arises to play a part in a remake of the film that launched Bel’s mother’s career, Nora sets out to take it from her friend.
Nora and Bel might appear to be opposites – Nora calm and controlled where Bel is wild, spontaneous, self-destructive – but they have much in common. They match one another totally in their desire to get what they want, and in their disregard of others. The inevitable clash is explosive.
Holden Caulfield famously describes himself as ‘the most terrific liar you ever saw in your life’; it’s a claim readers will apply to Nora too. Certainly she keeps and holds our attention, if not our trust, from beginning to end. Gray’s control of the plot is assured, as Nora takes us back and forth in time, truths and lies gradually revealed to shock us and change our understanding of what we believe to be true. Little liar, big drama.