The Liar

The Liar, by Stephen Fry

“Little girls grow up to be women. Little boys grow up to be little boys.” In his first novel, Stephen Fry explores the games played by men of a certain privileged type: spy games, mind games, sexual games, and, naturally, good old English cricket.

“You won’t cheat will you, sir?”
“Cheat? Good heavens. This is an amateur cricket match amongst leading prep schools, I’m an Englishman and a schoolmaster supposedly setting an example to his young charges. We are playing the most artistic and beautiful game man ever devised. Of course I’ll cunting well cheat.” (Apologies for the language, but I loved this exchange.)

For the sake of its author, referred to in this household as “darling Stephen”, I wanted to love this book, but in the end I could only like it–and that only after slogging through the boring, off-putting and confusing early sections. Had it been anyone else writing, I would have put this book aside after fifty pages, but I trusted Stephen Fry to pull it all together into something worthwhile. In the end, I was glad I stuck it out, but also glad I had merely borrowed the book, not purchased it.

The story follows Adrian Healey, the titular liar, from roughly age 15 to 19, but in a non-linear way. There are three or four major moments of Adrian’s adolescence braided together, and the transitions between scenes are not always clearly marked. These early chapters were confusing, and as Adrian was a pretentious little snot, I nearly abandoned him entirely. But just then, Adrian launches his plot to forge a lost (and pornographic) Dickens novel, and it got rather too funny to put down. After a while, it starts making sense why these particular moments of Adrian’s life have been chosen to tell his story; they illuminate one another and a picture begins to emerge of the vulnerable Adrian underlying the brassy exterior. We also start to see just how much Adrian has been lying to himself and everyone around him–and his lies will continue to unravel right through the very climax of the novel. The boy is frightfully mendacious, and yet, as we got glimpses of his true self, I developed sympathy for Adrian, and that made the rest of the book much easier to take.

Woven all through Adrian’s story is a thin, bright wire of international espionage–what it has to do with Adrian, or Adrian with it, is not at all clear until late in the book. Once those pieces started falling into place, the story rocketed to its conclusion, and by then, I was wholly on board and rooting for Adrian to win–which in Adrian’s case means both surviving the bloody game of spies he’s embroiled in, and finding a way of transitioning from his debauched adolescence to some kind of responsible adulthood.

As expected from an author such as Fry, the language in the book is a sparkling display of English at its most playful and polished. (Would that I commanded a vocabulary comparable to Fry’s!)

This fantasy of England that old men took with them to their death-beds, this England without factories and sewers or council houses, this England of leather and wood and flannel, this England circumscribed by a white boundary and laws that said each team shall field eleven men and each man shall bat, this England of shooting-sticks, weather-vanes and rectory teas, it was like Cartwright’s beauty, he thought, a momentary vision glimpsed for a second in an adolescent dream, the dispersed like steam into the real atmosphere of traffic-jams, serial murderers, prime ministers and Soho rent. But its spectral haze was sharper and clearer than the glare of the everyday and, against all evidence, was taken to be the only reality, its vapour trapped and distilled in the mind, its image, scents, and textures bottled and laid down against the long, lonely melancholy of adulthood.

The reader absolutely cannot help but hear both Adrian and his pedantic mentor declaiming in the plummy tones of the author himself. The wordplay is frequent, hilarious and very often filthy–as is the sexual content. (Faint of heart, be warned!) The last chapter, a sort of unidentified epilogue, makes it clear that one may put away childish things, and yet the game goes ever on. I found it oddly reassuring on both counts.

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