Tale to break your heart

THE FIRST TRUE LIE<br><b>Marina Mander</b>><br><i>Canongate</i>
THE FIRST TRUE LIE<br><b>Marina Mander</b>><br><i>Canongate</i>
This beautifully told tale in small-format novella form has been translated from the Italian by Stephen Twilley.

In it, author Marina Mander introduces the world to Luca, a little boy with a big voice, big vocabulary (swear words are a favourite), big responsibility, and a big secret.

A self-described ''half-orphan'' (his father having ''disappeared into the void''), he lives with his Mama and cat Blue in an apartment building.

Wise and sensitive beyond his years, he is alert to his mother's moods, as well as the ''details'' needed to convince other adults that everything's fine. But Mama is far from fine. She is more down than up, and she sleeps a lot.

''I think Mama and I have fallen into someone's oblivion ... because people don't seek us out much, maybe because she's sad and when she's sad she's not much fun. You've really got to love her to put up with her then. Only if it's your own mother can you be OK with it - you can't do anything else; she's the only one you've got.''

It is no spoiler to say that in the first chapter, Mama doesn't wake up.

The First True Lie is a remarkable book. It is reminiscent of Emma Donohue's Room, also about a tale of a young boy and his mother confined together and trying to look after each other in situations beyond their control.

In 179 small pages, it provides a fully fledged heart-wrenching but compelling analysis of the human condition.

The author clearly knows about depression, loneliness and fear. The fact she writes about them from the point of view of a young boy makes her account all the more powerful. But as well as being heartbreaking, her portrayal of the spirited and courageous Luca also offers welcome relief, showing as it does the enduring nature of love and loyalty, and the power of the human spirit to survive the unimaginable.

Be warned: this novella will break your heart, but you won't be able to put it down.

- Helen Speirs is ODT books editor.

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