John Self (Asylum) on Catholics
Guy Savage (His Futile Preoccupations) on The Doctor’s Wife
Lies of Silence by Brian Moore
I have recently read two books back-to-back dealing with the fictional exploration of The Troubles in Northern Ireland: The Truth Commissioner by David Park, and then Lies of Silence by Brian Moore. Both are brave, are different in what they fictionalise, but this is not to compare the two; that would be unfair because the latter was written by a vastly superior writer to the former, and that makes the true difference, certainly as far as fiction is concerned. This is especially so in the way each writer addresses the moral landscape, which became – for me – the fundamental deficiency in Park’s book, as I have commented upon in that thread.
Moore is rightly famed for his fictive range and the three that I have read consist of enjoyably separate universes. In view of this range I have wondered if there exists a thematic unity to Moore’s novels, or whether I could discover it even if I read them all, as Lizzy has set out to do. I was surprised to learn from Lizzy’s blog that the setting, or certainly part of the idea of Lies of Silence, came from a real life experience of Moore’s.
Caution: what follows below is spoiler packed and could almost be blacked out in its entirety.
In Lies of Silence, Moore does not launch immediately into the action of the kidnap and bomb run, which a lesser writer may well have done. His book is an exploration of national, tribal and personal betrayal and needs to provide the moral intersections at which these betrayals will occur. Moore uses the first chapter to give us a strong sense of the wavering morality of the character of Michael Dillon. Alongside Dillon he begins his presentation to us of Andrea Baxter, Dillon’s young lover, and Moira, his wife. But it is Dillon we know by the end of the first forty pages, from that first desperate “Please ?” to Andrea to meet him for a late walk, to the craven refusal to answer his wife’s bedtime question as to what was wrong, because he knew ‘they would be up all night’. Moore barges into the chapter’s last paragraph to kick a character when he’s down: ‘He kissed her, a traitor’s kiss.’
But they are up all night, when the IRA break into their house. The chaotic terror, the menace of the masked men, the fear of – and from – the young volunteers, the shift between psychological and physical power among the captured and their captors, the behavioural explosion of Moira, and the seeming acquiescence of Dillon as he approaches the hour of his will-he/won’t-he dilemma are dramatically and brilliantly done.
No Bomb / No Moira: can one imagine such a drive ? Moore takes us along in Dillon’s head, right to the very brink. Dillon’s moral priority is for the greater number, the hotel guests (who include the equally distasteful Rev. Alun Pottinger, the sectarian target of the bomb) rather than his wife. It is only after the hotel has been cleared that Dillon asks about her. Do we believe in Dillon’s actions to this point ? Do we believe in Moore ? Yes. The dilemma is extreme, asking an unimaginable empathy. Perhaps is enough.
Moira is then faced with her reaction to her husband’s choice: hero for saving many lives, or villain for his willingness to sacrifice her’s ? And from this narrative point forwards she is spinning away from Dillon. However, her character needs something more to justify the apparent ‘flakiness’ of her actions. Moore gives her an eating disorder, an obsession with her looks, and the belief that she is only alive at a cosmetic level.
Moore’s cleverness in his succinct plotting of Moira’s betrayals is not only to have the confession of her husband’s infidelity arrive after the bomb run, but to have Dillon’s transfer to London, and her own moral stance on that, cause the split, conveniently for Dillon, it appears.
“‘No, you listen. You stood up to them this morning. You were willing to lose me to do it. Well, I’m going to stay here now and stand up to them, even if it means losing you.” She turned away. “What am I talking about ? I can’t lose you. I never had you.’”
Then comes the confession, but not before, and perhaps in the aftermath of his heroism, Dillon overreaches himself, commits what adulterers would term a “schoolboy error”, by holding hands with Andrea in the high-risk public arena of his hotel’s restaurant. In comes Moira “… tall, walking quickly”. Of course she has seen them. The brief conversation that follows displays Moore’s consistency in Dillon
“‘No. I rang Peg Walton this morning. I’m starting right away in her shop. How long have you known that girl ?’
‘What girl ?’
She jerked her head in the direction of the dining-room. ‘That girl !’
‘A few months. Why ?’
Suddenly she laughed, angry, close to hysteria. ‘Why’ she said. ‘Why ?’
Later in the TV make-up room, Moira and Dillon close in on the truth. But Dillon, having informed Moira that they need to talk “about us” cannot bring himself to the necessary words, and cedes the psychological space to his wife. It is only then, when Dillon is silent in the face of his wife’s question as to whether he is going to miss her – his young lover – by going to London, that she realises that they are going together, and the betrayal is deeper than she thought. In their next meeting in the tea room, Moore turns it up further when Moira asks Dillon if he would have taken the same decision had it been his lover, Andrea. Dillon then confirms that she is going to England with him, confesses that it is serious and that he wants a divorce …. but only in response to his wife’s questions.
For me there is an illuminating example of Moore’s skill when Dillon is exiting the TV studio in the lift.
“They stood in silence, watching the indicator ascend. ‘So it was Pottinger they were after ?’ the commissionaire asked.
‘It seems so.’”
Pure character. Quintessential Dillon. And magnificent writing. It has already been established beyond doubt that Pottinger was the target of the IRA bomb. Moore could have had Dillon say, simply, “Yes”. The finesse of Moore’s characterisation has Dillon equivocate, and qualify the truth with an uncertainty that does not exist. In the moral war zone of sectarian Belfast, Dillon has no indicator at that point of the commissionaire’s sympathies, and on a larger scale Moore shows the extreme distrust and caution of random human intercourse in such a setting. Such subtlety.
By contrast with Moira, Moore shows his bravado in characterisation. From quiet beginnings Moira’s behaviour is unleashed stage by stage as each betrayal takes place: by Belfast, by her fading looks, by her friend Peg, and by her husband. Within the confines of tight plotting in a tight book Moore is accomplished across a wide range of character evolution.
Like the action of the beginning, the introduction of a new character at p.201 of a p.251 book would perhaps in the work of a lesser writer signal a plot convenience. But the arrival of Father Matt Connolly is the harbinger of Dillon’s fatal moral convolution resulting in the final betrayal. In Dillon’s second meeting with the priest, which takes place in Hyde Park in London, he experiences yet another moral spasm as regards testifying against the IRA who kidnapped him and his wife. Shortly after marching away from the priest in blind anger, he has to face Andrea’s question as to whether being a “coward” is more important than their lives together. The spasms become contractions. She reminds Dillon that he promised that he would not testify. With further prodding into his ever-shifting backbone, Andrea gets Dillon to agree not to testify and to ring the police, and if possible the priest, to tell them this. He never makes the call … and so finally betrays Andrea, breaking his earlier promise to her. Those whom he does not betray are, ironically, the IRA as they ensure that he does not. I found that the novel’s depressing irony. Dillon’s fate is a function of Dillon’s nature, as if Moore had nothing to do with it.
Perhaps the ultimate betrayal of this novel is Dillon’s betrayal of himself, a young published poet masquerading as a hotel manager, after which the rest is fictionally possible. It’s as if Moore, like a chess grandmaster, makes a move early in the opening which ultimately defeats his unknowing opponent many moves later.
At the beginning of the novel Dillon recollects the first time he meets Andrea who mistakes him for one of the Irish Poets who are being filmed at the hotel of which he is a manager.
“‘You’re one of the Irish Poets, aren’t you?’ she asked, and in that moment all the wrong turnings he had taken in his life came back to sentence him.”
Craft of the highest order.
As an expatriate of long standing Brian Moore felt that younger authors with in-situ experience would probably write about the troubles in Northern Ireland in a more meaningful way than he. Then he was caught in a bomb scare and found himself evacuated from a hotel with a coach-load of French tourists ….. The next thing said tourists find themselves in the midst of a similar situation within his 1990 novel, Lies of Silence.
Imagine yourself plumetted into the following nightmare scenario: your wife is held hostage while you are forced to drive a bomb in your car to your place of work. If you raise the alarm she will be executed. This is the unthinkable situation in which Moore places his protagonist, Dillon. But to complicate the issue, this happens on the very day that Dillon has earmarked to leave his wife. Another complication: Dillon is apolitical, unhappy about the situation, but definitely anti-violence:
Dillon felt anger rise within him, anger at the lies which had made this, his … birthplace, sick with a terminal illness of bigotry and injustice, lies told over the years to poor Catholic working people about the Catholics, lies told to poor Catholic working people about the Protestants, lies from parliaments and pulpits, lies at rallies and funeral orations, and, above all, the lies of silence from those in Westminister who did not want to face the injustices of Ulster’s status quo.
So, what would you do in Dillon’s situation? And which choices does he make? I can’t possibly tell you what happens except this traumatic incident paves the way for a second half in which tension subsides but terror becomes insidious.
Moore pulls no punches and Lies of Silence, while set specifically in his home town, adds up to an absolute condemnation of terrorism of any kind. Written in (unputdownable) thriller form, there were those who felt that he was demeaning his subject. I disagree. The immediacy of the writing allows the reader to feel Dillon’s fear, experience his panic, make the same mistakes?
Lies of Silence is more than a thriller – it’s a literary offering as evidenced by its Booker shortlisting (losing, in the end, to A S Byatt’s Possession). What makes it literary? The quality of the writing, the assurity of pitch and pace, description and dialogue, the flesh and blood of its characters. Moira, Dillon’s wife is a complicated creation. She is the one who raises the questions of courage, who refuses to kow-tow to the bullies. For that is how Moore pictures the terrorists – badly-educated, mean-spirited bullies. But he reserves his scorn for the apologists – in this case a weasel of a priest who seeks to prevent justice being served.
Published in his 69th year, Lies of Silence shows absolutely no sign of Moore’s pen mellowing with age. While that may have dismayed many at the time of publication, it ensures that the novel remains fresh, pertinent and (even if the situation in Northern Ireland is now radically different) relevant to today’s reading audience.
What is the difference between a normal every-day thriller and a literary thriller?
I don’t know, but Lies of Silence reads quickly and easily just like any thriller. However, there are points made which tend to stick with the reader.
I think we can be assured that Brian Moore did not give credence to either side of “The Troubles”.
Beyond that though, there’s a study here about doing “the right thing”; can the value of one person’s life be weighed against the value of many? And once you’ve resolved that in principle, what if that one person was someone else? Tricky!
Lies of Silence reads like a thriller, but after nearly two weeks, I still remember it, so not my normal every-day thriller.