The Guardian First Book Award is an award fraught with challenge, and that is one of its greatest strengths. As a multi-genre award it requires comparisons between apples and oranges. The longlist is always enticing, and also often frustrating to one's expectations.
Mary Horlock's novel is no exception. It has aroused a strangely mixed response in me. Interleaving two stories, both in the confessional form of diaries and letters, it interrogates the slippage between what we say and what we mean, through the device of history repeating itself. Set in Guernsey in the 1980s and an account written in 1965 of events of the second world war, both stories are told by unreliable adolescent narrators. Both narrators confess to murder, both are obsessed by their relationships with 'poisonous' friends who they feel betray their loyalty.
The novel tackles profound questions about truth and trust, documentation and denial. But there is something unsettling about the characterisation. The thing about lies is that for them to work, you have to believe them. Trust is at the very heart of a lie, and I never felt that I truly trusted or believed in the central character Cat, appealing as she was from time to time. Mercurial and wry and capable of some darkly funny insights, she had the potential to captivate me, but the way in which she disinvests her own narrative of credibility by an increasingly grating parenthetic commentary in which she is self-consciously younger than her years, served to stifle any affection I might have fostered for her.
The narrative is sprinkled with footnotes, interrupting, contradicting, reinforcing the stories, and again this should have been a device which worked to challenge our response to the historical novel, but somehow the dissonance was so destabilising that in the end it robbed the book of much of its essential warmth.
Should it make it to the shortlist? On the strength of having read only two of the longlist I'll give it a definite maybe.