Poetry Madness

Washington Post Book World
Friday, March 23rd, 2007
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The Lying Tongue: A Novel

by Andrew Wilson

The Biographer's Tale

A review by Michael Collins

"Wherever I went I saw a question mark at the heart of the city." This evocative opening line, which begins Andrew Wilson's The Lying Tongue, provides a telling metaphor for an extraordinary work of imaginative genius, meshing Dickens's gothic atmosphere with Hitchcock'ssuspenseful creepiness.

The novel opens in Venice with a travelogue of shimmering historical description dappled with poetic detail. The narrator, Adam Woods, a recently graduated and troubled student, tells us he has taken leave of England to start anew after an unseemly end to a relationship with his girlfriend. He has a job offer to tutor a 16-year-old boy and aspirations to write a novel.

The tutoring job falls through before Woods even starts his new life. But good fortune strikes, and he is informed that a reclusive English author living in Venice, Gordon Crace, is in need of a personal assistant. Woods applies for and secures the job, describing his employer's liver-spotted hand during their initial handshake as feeling like the "lifeless body of a tiny bird."

What unfolds, in three discreet parts, is Woods's initial fascination with the aged Crace, whose first and only novel, published in the 1960s, was an international bestseller. Crace is loath to mention his life as a writer and warns Woods against transgressing onto the subject, though he knows Woods aspires to be a writer. Their relationship is tenuous, claustrophobic and downright unnerving, underscored by a sublimated sexual tension as Crace, in his infirmity, comes to depend entirely on Woods as a surrogate companion.

The gothic noir of the isolated relationship, set against the silent movement of gondolas and fog, is eerie. Failing in his attempt to write his own novel, Woods begins secretly writing a biography of Crace. As he sifts through Crace's personal correspondence, we are led through the enthralling process of how a biographer goes about resurrecting a buried life with the power to shape and define a subject's reputation and immortality. Early on, Woods hits pay dirt: a blackmail letter seemingly alluding to the death of Crace's one-time lover.

The intensity heightens as Woods's disgust for Crace deepens, and he becomes determined to unearth his subject's past. Under the pretext of leaving to attend a funeral, Woods departs for England. Equally at home in exploring the rain-sodden British Isles, Wilson demonstrates his true scope as a writer. The novel takes on a breathtaking pace as Woods uncovers disturbing details related to Crace's tenure at a boys' school. Armed with sufficient evidence to force Crace into helping him publish the biography, Woods returns to Venice and a surreally violent denouement.

With an intriguing climactic twist that borrows from the esoteric coded messaging made famous in The Da Vinci Code, Wilson pulls off a mesmerizing tale that seeks to answer the question "Who are we really?"

Michael Collins is the author of six novels, including, most recently, Death of a Writer.

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