In the London of Hédi Kaddour’s Little Grey Lies, translated by Teresa Lavender Fagan, peace has settled, but the tensions, fears, and anger of the Great War remain, even if tucked away behind stories and lies. Directly ahead, as those leftovers of the war simmer to a boil, is World War II. Little Grey Lies is a war novel without war, and about the inevitability of the next. War is a filter over the book, it is life in the inescapable aftermath of war, not the destruction, not the loss of life and property, but instead the constant memory, the subconscious, ongoing afflictions. In that space, it is the intricacies of personal connections, of secrets and the desire to out them, that become the conflicts.
Max, the character we spend the most time with, is a journalist and the book is both the narrative of his discovery of the story, and the story itself. In the first pages, he witnesses a procession of veterans, in memory of the Battle of Mons, England’s first encounter with the Germans during World War I. It is from this battle that the novel finds its birth: a myth of angels as archers protecting the defeated, yet heroic troops becomes a necessary faith for some, and even those who don’t believe are awed by the legend.
At the front of the procession is Colonel William Strether, who becomes the focus of Max’s London investigation. Strether is a respected man, utterly in control with every precise movement of his body. Working as a maître d’ he plays the room like a puppeteer: “he didn’t take their order but dictated it to a server standing behind him, commented on the menu, assembled the meal while making the client feel he was doing it himself.” Strether is a true Fascist believer, a powerful leader of men, even if “he rarely spoke in public, took no defined position, he waited for when he was alone with the leaders.” He doesn’t hesitate to use violence to lead his men, to train them toward order. It’s all part of his hiding a lie—one that is again a violence, though now against himself—and part of the inevitable path to the next war.
Max and his friend Lena also want to control their lives, Lena through her love affairs with men, Max by uncovering what has been hidden. This ever-present desire for order and control is the post-war condition. It is not just individuals composing their lives. We see the rise of fascism, recognize that the fearful need to control, birthed by war, creates the next.
Max and Lena meet with Strether as Max tries to get the Colonel to reveal his past. Overlapping this, Lena meets with her young lover, breaks up with him, and monitors his new affair. These are characters who are careful with their stories, shaping their identities, their lives. Max may claim to be a journalist seeking facts, but he wants to break a person apart, then tell that person’s next tale—all the while side-stepping his own past. They are held together by these efforts, as an English lord puts it late on in the book: “To reinvent life out of a lie.”
The unveiling of Strether to Max occurs disjointedly, as Strether is almost as intent on avoiding his past as Max is on bringing it to light. This meandering is one of the simple ways that Kaddour creates deep characters in this short novel. By moving around, purposely glimpsing at moments, each glimpse can be direct and revealing in an instant. Movements and character commentary shoot out of their own lies into poignantly relatable truths, which, when the novel’s greatest lie is revealed, become more intricate.
Even though Kaddour creates a character complex enough to fight with herself while having insights into others, the weakest part of the novel is the time spent with Lena. In her interactions with Max and Strether she is interesting; her perspective into them is sharp. Without her these conversations wouldn’t be as full, and her presence, her relationship with Strether, should be returned to when Stether’s past is understood. But the early-on section of her love affair peters out, and by the end of the novel is forgotten, feeling like filler.
Against that, though, is the way this skill of insight lets us open up to a character introduced midway through the novel, without explanation. The immediate supposition, given that we are read Glady’s story just after being introduced to Strether’s wife, is soon shattered. From there, we follow Glady because we know some truths must sit at the end of this tale, and because Kaddour is able to make us care enough along the way, to make Glady a complex character with motivations combatting against themselves.
For this review, the full complexities of Little Grey Lies must be passed over. The most interesting life it has to offer would be so much less so if a reader knows the answers going into the tale. As it goes, there is enough to make it an entertaining read, but without its final twist — and thankfully, it does not twist and then immediately end, but follows the path to explore a little further—Kaddour’s effort wouldn’t offer much more than the familiar. With a lie at its core, however, we are given a new way to look at how people find ways to make it through life.
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