The Liar

This was Stephen Fry’s first novel, but the second of his that I have read. The first, The Stars’ Tennis Balls, was a modern retelling of The Count of Monte Cristo, about a young man kidnapped and imprisoned for decades, but who then escapes and seeks revenge on those responsible. It’s a novel that trundles along for half its length, neither particularly boring nor particularly marvellous. But then it suddenly takes off and becomes unputdownable. As with A Tale of Two Cities, it makes a good argument for not giving up on a book too soon.

The Liar is more consistently readable. As anyone who has read the first volume of Fry’s autobiography will quickly realise, a lot of what happens here is semi-autobiographical. Just like Stephen Fry, young Adrian Healey goes to a prim and proper public school, falls in love with another boy, is expelled, has a run-in with the law, manages to get into Cambridge, and there becomes involved in the theatre. Presumably Fry never spent time as a rentboy in Piccadilly and didn’t become embroiled in international espionage during the dying days of the Cold War, but perhaps it amuses him to have us wonder.

Even more so than The Stars’ Tennis Balls, The Liar changes direction abruptly and frequently, becoming a completely different novel every 83 pages or so. Or so it appears. Much is not necessarily as it seems, as befitting a novel called The Liar. Every major development in Adrian’s life is precipitated by a gross dishonesty on his part, making the novel less a comedy of errors than a comedy of fibs. Though it did make me wonder what a straight thriller from Fry would be like.

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