The Liar's Daughter

Laurie Graham

 Published by Quercus 10 October 2013

320pp, hardback, £16.99

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hilliard Selka


Imagine you were told that your absent father was a famous man, a celebrity, a national hero. And that the person telling you this was your mother, who had a credible explanation for how this could possibly be. Wouldn’t you be inclined to believe it, if for no other reason that no other father was on offer? The year is 1820. Nan Prunty is a sensible girl, fourteen, and John Pounds the cobbler is teaching her and a crowd of other Portsmouth ragamuffins to read and write out of the goodness of his heart. He’s teaching them some history too, including the story of England’s great victory at Trafalgar, thanks to Admiral Nelson.

Nan runs home to tell her mother the amazing tale that Nelson’s body was brought home from Trafalgar in a barrel of rum. Her mother puts her right – it was spirits of wine, not rum, and she knows because she helped put him in it. Not only was she at the battle as a sailmaker and, when necessary, surgeon’s assistant on board the very ship, but Nan was there too, unborn, the consequence of loving encounters with my Lord Nelson. 

It’s too good a yarn to resist, and Nan is hooked. She has a life and a living to earn, but when she can she turns detective to try and establish the facts of her own case, since her mother is fond of the bottle and consequently an unreliable witness. Nan takes us with her, and as she is such an irresistibly engaging companion, so spirited and honest, courageous and clever and warm and transparent, we go willingly. We are almost unaware this is a tale of detection, so wrapped up are we in Nan’s unfolding life and, in due course, in the life of her daughter Pru. The tale takes us from Trafalgar to the Crimea and beyond, to a conclusion that (given the title of the novel) may be predictable but is nonetheless surprising when it arrives.

The pervading tone of The Liar’s Daughter is tenacious good humour. Laurie Graham’s ten previous novels include The Future Homemakers of America, a rollercoaster of laughter and tears. This latest tale may not reach quite the same heights and depths of emotion, but it is nonetheless affecting and compelling, Graham’s turn of phrase as jaunty and telling as ever, her characters as full-bodied and real – so much so that one regrets that this story must end, whilst already looking forward to her next invention.

Comments are closed.