Lies of Silence by Brian Moore (1990) Longman Schools Division (1991) 232 pp
Brian Moore’s creepy book The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne found its way on my best of 2010 list, and it had one of my favorite covers of the year. For some time I’ve wanted to read Moore’s Lies of Silence, often cited as one of the only — if not the only — thriller to be a finalist for the Booker Prize. Thanks to the Book Depository, I was able to find a Longman Editions copy of it from the United Kingdom (complete with a glossary, notes, all kinds of questions, etc.), since it is not in print in the United States. I won’t hold out: the book is great. But I wasn’t nearly as pleased with the cover. In my two reviews of Moore’s books, we’ve gone from one of the best covers to one of the worst. (I say “one of the worst” because I have a published-on-demand copy of Sam Selvon’s Moses Migrating which features what appears to be a high-school artist’s rendering of a school mascot.)
When I began reading this book, though, I cared not at all about the cover. It was late at night and my wife was away. When that happens I find I have a difficult time going to bed, no matter how tired I am. To induce sleep, I’ll often read and find myself falling asleep after only a few pages (it is, as I said, very late). But this book kept me going. As it grew ever later, I knew I should put Lies of Silence down and go to sleep, but the book had woken me up even more than before. Plus, the IRA was breaking into a private residence in the middle of the night — who can sleep with that? I’m not sorry at all that it left me sleep-deprived the next day.
Lies of Silence concerns the moderately successful (by his own estimation) luxury hotel manager, Michael Dillon. He and his wife, Moira, live in Belfast, a place he despises and has wanted to leave for years. He and his wife are unbelieving Catholics and know that Protestants have discriminated against Catholics for years; still, neither sides with the IRA. Unlike her husband, though, Moira doesn’t want to leave Dublin.
When the book opens Michael is driving past a school, taking note of the graduates he sees. It’s that time of year again, and all of the activity will make his hotel a very busy place for the next few days. Suddenly he starts thinking about Andrea, his young girlfriend from Canada who celebrated her own graduation in the not-too-distant past. She is now working for the BBC in Belfast. Michael and Andrea have been having an affair for a few months, and Michael has decided that it is time to tell his wife, attain a divorce, and move away with Andrea. We find him entering his driveway the night before he plans to tell his wife:
He drove back down the Antrim Road and re-parked in the entryway. The light was now on in their bedroom window. Perhaps he could stay downstairs until she went to sleep? These last months he had found it easy to deceive her. She was the enemy of his freedom. But now he was sure he could not conceal his new happiness from her even for one night. Now she was no longer his enemy. She was his victim.
Michael’s relationship with Moira has never been good. He recognizes that his love for her has been self-deception. She’s beautiful, and he desired the power that came with her looks, the way walking around with her instantaneously put him on a perch above most other men.
It’s hard to read the chapter that narrates Michael’s arrival at home, his attempts to send his wife to bed so he can sit alone in the dark, her knowledge that something is wrong. Of course, this being a thriller, things only get worse. In the middle of the night Michael awakens to find his home invaded by a troop of young, masked, armed IRA “volunteers.” Why his private home has been taken over by these boys, Michael begins to understand. He’s heard of the IRA planting bombs in private citizens’ cars. Perhaps they have come for theirs. Soon he realizes, though, that he was targeted: he’s a hotel manager, and the next day a prominent and outspoken Protestant minister will be speaking at his hotel. As suspected, they want him to drive his car, park it, and leave it to explode, killing the Reverend and anyone else unlucky enough to be around. If he doesn’t do this exactly as planned, they will kill his wife.
Though quite a bit of setup has happened before Michael’s home is even invaded, Moore has instilled suspense in the buildup. We know something is coming because of the foreboding language, language that is clear and precise and never out of control or heavy-handed. And even during some of the most suspenseful passages in the book, Moore is able to keep the focus on the mental state of the protagonist, in all of Michael’s vacillation. Here is Michael, dissatisfied as ever, driving the car and the bomb to his hotel in the morning:
He had not known then that degree day was not a passport to freedom, but the end of freedom. He had not found the teaching job he wanted in England, in Europe, or in some faraway exotic place. His grandfather had run pubs and a hotel, his father ran a hotel and he had ended up, like them, a servant of sorts, arranging to feed people and pour their drinks and provide beds for them. Unlike his father and grandfather, he did not even own the hotel which he was now on his way to destroy.
Astoundingly, when the bomb explodes, we still have well over half of this book left. The suspense is in the aftermath, in the fear Michael feels every time he is alone, in the guilt he feels over his decision, and especially in the way this event affects his personal relationships. And it’s still suspenseful because we don’t know if anyone is out to kill Michael as he tries to pick up the pieces and restart his life.
In this superbly written book, Moore has shown how to write a book that is intelligent and thrilling. I can see I have many more good reading experiences ahead as I work through more Moore.