Belfast Telegraph

Monday 14 July 2014

Truth to Tell, By Mavis Cheek

Robert Porter's self-righteous tirades on the subject of deceitful bankers and politicians are driving his wife, Nina, to distraction.

In a bid to illustrate what a fib-free life might actually look like, Nina determines to spend a week telling the truth.

But as Cheek's high concept farce so winningly points out, honesty isn't always the best policy. Nina's first act of truthfulness cuts to the very heart of her marriage. After years of accompanying her husband on an annual office jolly, Nina declares she's always hated Florida, and this year will be staying at home instead. It's only when it comes to dropping Robert off at Heathrow that her resolve almost cracks: "I wished him to Hell. But mostly I really loved him. Not that he deserved it. I loathed him. I loved him. Well, one or the other."

Back in West London, Nina prepares herself for yet another difficult encounter - a lunch date with best friend, Toni, currently in the throws of a fraught extra-martial affair. Worried that if asked directly, she might have to own up to the fact that she's always found her friend's inamorata "utterly boring", "deeply unattractive", possibly even "creepy". As predicted, her disclosures go down like a lead balloon, and she's left to play with her tagliatelle on her own.

In many regards Cheek's truth-telling conceit proves surplus to requirements. Much like Barbara Pym's "excellent women", Cheek's heroines have long valued honesty over affectation and feminine wiles. Luckily for Nina, there is still one person left in her life who finds her candid comments more amusing than irksome - her boss and confidante, Bruno. Collaborators together on a series of upmarket tourist guides, Bruno insists that Nina stops moping and joins him for some hands-on-research in Venice. Nina's sourjorn in La Serenissisma proves the highlight of the book, creating the perfect setting for the kind of romantic muddles at which Cheek excels. Meandering through a city practiced in the art of illusion and deception, Cheek's historical and literary observations are invisibly knitted into the novel's rich fabric. Finally putting her herself to the test, Nina finds herself approached in the piazza by a distinguished Venentian keen to join her in a pre-prandial Campari and soda. Being true to herself might mean only one thing, while being true to her husband something entirely else. If all fiction is a flirtation with the truth, then Cheek, as ever proves herself an experienced player.

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