The First True Lie

A Novel
Trade Paperback

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An utterly compelling, heartbreaking novel that introduces a revelatory young voice to the U.S. market.

Meet Luca, a curious young boy living with his mother, a taciturn woman who every now and then tries out a new father. Luca keeps to himself, his cat, Blue, and his favorite toys—words. One February morning his mom doesn't wake up to bring him to school, so Luca—driven by a deep fear of being an orphan—decides to pretend to the world that his mom is still alive. At first it's easy. Luca dresses himself for school, makes sure Blue gets his dinner, and manages to avoid nosy neighbors. He and Blue camp out in the living room and embark on imaginary expeditions to outer space, and Luca dreams about marrying his school crush, Antonella. Soon, however, the laundry starts piling up, the fridge emptying—and the smell of Mama's decaying body begins to permate the apartment.

As Luca grapples with what to do, we ultimately witness something much more poignant than the morbid circumstance—a young boy's journey to the point at which he can say: “I am no longer an orphan. I am a single human being. It's a matter of words.”

Praise

Praise for Marina Mander's The First True Lie

“If you liked Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, read The First True Lie, by Marina ManderMander’s English-language debut has all of Foer’s energy, despite a hard-to-stomach premise… As in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, the buoyancy of the child narrator’s voice is ultimately an act of hope — hope in the face of death, darkness, and trauma.” Cosmopolitan 

“From page one I was with Luca, the adorable and witty young narrator of this brilliant and emotionally upsetting story. I lived in his words and in his head, and stayed there for a long time after I had finished the book.” —Herman Koch, author of the international bestseller The Dinner

“Mander’s English-language debut is narrated by the ebullient Luca, whose voice is every bit as engaging as the best child narrators out there: imagine a blend of Oskar (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), Blue (Special Topics in Calamity Physics), and Christopher Boone (The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time). This slim novel smartly focuses on the cranks and gears of Luca’s imagination….[A]t its best, Luca’s original voice will break your heart. Ultimately, Luca’s story offers a buoyant picture of hope in the face of disaster, and life in the face of death.” Publishers Weekly 

"Translated from the Italian in clear, lyrical prose, always true to the child’s viewpoint, the blend of horror and innocence captures a universal nightmare….The terse survival drama of the child marooned alone, not in the wilderness but in the crowded city, will stir readers: Could it be happening on my street? How will it end?” Booklist 

“[An] elegantly carved look into the inner life of an orphaned child.” Kirkus Reviews 
 
“Cruel, heart-wrenching, and surprising...As all great books do, this opens a window into a world. It will not be easy for you to close that window, nor to forget that world.” La Republica 

“A beautiful novel that tells a terrible story with brio and depth.” —Tiziano Scarpa

Excerpt

1

So today I make do on my own.

Never mind that Mama hasn't gotten up. I get up anyway. I get ready on my own.

It must be because of the pills for allergies or for nostalgia, one or the other. Sometimes Mama takes a lot and sleeps more than usual. Or maybe it's narcolepsy, like what happens to the cat's brain. I should ask the vet about it.

She says that sometimes the pills have strange effects, but she also says I shouldn't worry, that everything's okay. "Sometimes I have trouble getting out of bed, but it's normal. With this cold weather who wants to be exposed to the cold, to get out from under the covers?"

Anyway, I have to get moving, and I make sure my hair's not messy before I leave. I tiptoe out to the elevator. I say hi to the man from upstairs.

"You're going to school on your own today?"

"Yes."

The elevator buttons pulse like my heart, which has started to beat really fast, like it's trying to get out but can't.

"Yes, I do now, yes."

I act proud. Maybe I really am proud to be doing things on my own. Or maybe I'm ashamed because I'd rather be getting into the shiny car of a shiny dad with all the dad accessories. But at the same time I'm embarrassed to be embarrassed because if Dad vanished into thin air--another one of Mama's expressions--it's not our fault. Maybe she's right: Feelings are complicated, especially early in the morning. Maybe it's not important. So then I smile and clear out. That way I don't mess up.

At school, everything's normal. Everyone's ready to follow along with the lesson, despite the pillow marks on our faces, the gunk in our eyes, the yawns we barely manage to swallow. The morning carries on as usual, and as usual I pass the time by inventing stories in my head. Soon it's almost noon and my tummy begins to grumble because it's annoyed and can't take anymore. Then the bell goes. When I leave, I pretend to be in a hurry. I ask a guy out front for the time.

"Quarter past one."

I smile politely. "Are you waiting for someone?" I ask.

"Yes, my son, Giovanni. Do you know him? Perhaps he's in the same class as you?"

"No, we have some Matteos, some Davides, a Chris, and even a Samantha with an h, but no Giovannis."

"Do you want a lift?"

"No, thank you. I really must be going now."

Pretending to be in a hurry gives the impression that you're important. If no one is waiting for you, what do you care about being in a hurry?

The flower woman pops out of her flower hut, which stands on the corner like a guardhouse. She's ugly and smells like flower stems that have been left in the water too long, in rusty metal vases like the ones on the grave of Mama's dad, my grandpa.

"My, my, how impressive, walking home on your own now. You're quite the little man."

Why doesn't she shut up? Little man is another term I can't stand.

Like I can't stand the flower woman.

"What have you got against the flower woman?" Mama would ask.

"She ate the goose."

"You're still going on about the goose? C'mon, stop thinking about it."

Mama and I won a duck at the fair by throwing colored rings onto bottle necks that spin on a kind of merry-go-round. We kept it at home for a while, then the duck turned out to be a goose and Mama gave it to the flower woman so she'd keep it at her house in the country.

"The goose will be much better off in the open air, you'll see."

The elevator is broken, or else the old man has left the doors open and it got stuck on the fifth floor, as he often does. Mama says he's got problems in his head. Sometimes she says, "Poor man." Sometimes she says, "Old fool."

It depends what pops into her head. If she's carrying groceries or bottles, she usually says "old fool."

I take the stairs: seven flights, two hundred and fifty-four stairs. I count them every time. Today I stop at one hundred and sixty-six. It doesn't make any sense to hurry if no one is waiting. Mama will still be in bed, dazed and sleepy. Or maybe she'll have come back around. I start climbing again, taking the steps two at a time, the even numbers, with my right foot. If I manage not to put a foot wrong, Mama will be fine for sure. I hear Blue meowing behind the door. He always does that when he hears me coming. He's happy I'm here.

Mama and Blue come toward me.

But Mama's not here. It's just Blue.

The apartment has a dark look to it. I walk straight down the seemingly endless hallway, hearing the dull thud of my steps on the carpet. After passing the row of framed drawings on the wall, old boats floating in a sea of rippled paper, I go into Mama's room. Nothing's changed.

Everything is the same as it was this morning. No movement at all.

The room is wrapped in the gray-blue half-light of winter and worn curtains. Mama is wrapped in the covers. Has she changed position or was she already hunched up like that?

What should I do?

I adjust the covers for her. She's curled up in a ball as she sleeps. Maybe she's cold.

I ask her if she wants anything.

"Are you cold, Mama? It's really cold outside, you know."

She doesn't answer.

"Please, Mama, answer me. Why don't you say anything?"

I try shaking her, but she doesn't react.

I didn't expect her to. She seems completely lost inside herself, inside a dream so deep and far away that she's not showing any signs of life. You never know, though.

Maybe Mama is dead.

I've never seen a dead person, so I'm not sure what one looks like. Actually, I did see one once beside the highway, but it was covered by a sheet, so I really only saw a sheet, and it didn't make much of an impression. All the cars slowed down to look, but there wasn't anything to see. Mama and I were going away for the weekend. So was everyone else, probably. We signaled, tick tock tick tock, and re-joined the flow of traffic. Mama turned on the radio; the deejay was talking bullshit. Maybe because he hadn't seen the sheet. We had the sun in our faces, a strong, cocky sun that didn't have anything to do with a dead body.

Now Mama is covered up too. The only part that's not is her face on the pillow. Her hair is messy. It looks like the hair of the woman in that famous painting that has something to do with spring, or maybe summer, but hers is like the branches of a tree that's grown upside down, like roots without the ground. What should I do? Maybe I should comb it. It's always better to have your hair tidy. What should I do? Should I wait a little longer, or ask for help right away? I can't ask for help. If Mama is dead, I can't tell anyone. If I tell, they'll take me to the orphanage.

This is terrible.

I don't want to go.

I don't want to be a complete orphan.

Anything else would be better.

Better to say that Mama's left.

Or else say nothing and act like it doesn't matter.

Better to find a way to make do. It can't be that difficult. Better to try to survive.

Better to keep it a secret and smile.

Better to use my imagination, to make myself come up with something special. Better to hope it will all just be over soon.

Better to do three thousand push-ups in a row, seven flights of stairs on one leg, long division in my head.

Better to bury Kolly the koala.

Better to think about what's better.

Better to believe that in a little bit Mama will be much better.

Is it true, Mama, in a little bit you'll be better?

But if Mama's dead, what could be worse?

I have to pay attention to details and remember not to cry. If I start crying, I'll say that a fly flew into my eye--or no, I'll say it was a stag beetle. That way they'll think it's a joke and won't make a big deal about it--or else a stag deer, same thing.

We're sitting on the bed, Blue and I, and we don't know how to act.

Blue trots back and forth and pokes his head here and there, wrinkling his nose as if he's hunting for something. He steps on the faded flowers of the bedspread, sniffs Mama, scratches with his paw and makes a little hollow in the sheet. He gets a claw stuck and looks at me with wide-open eyes.

"I don't know what to tell you, Blue, I'm sorry. There's nothing I can do about it."

Suddenly a gigantic nothing starts to swirl and grow in my brain. My brain is a blank notebook that's never been opened, has nothing written in it, and there aren't even stories coming into my head. There aren't even lines where I can hang any words I come up with. The nothing that's flooding my head and fogging my vision won't let me do anything. A huge expanse of nothing like ice--Santa Claus has passed by, but the falling snow has wiped out his tracks. Blue has soft little pads on the bottom of his paws. He doesn't leave any tracks. The reindeer have disappeared. There are some mounds in the distance, maybe they're igloos, ice-cube houses. I feel really cold. I'm afraid of houses made of ice cubes.

Santa Claus doesn't exist. I've known that for a while. There's a white stuffed toy, a polar bear drifting on an iceberg, that doesn't know whether it'll reach land. You see the image everywhere.

I feel stuffed myself.

"Dr. Foster went to Gloucester, in a shower of rain." He stepped in a puddle and now we're all in fucking shit.

I can't call the doctor. Time passes, I don't know how much.

On autopilot, I find myself back in the living room. Blue and I squeeze up together on the sofa. Under his fur Blue is teeny-tiny. I go into my room. Blue follows me. I throw myself on the bed. I get up, go back to where I was before on the sofa. I look in Mama's dictionary for what it says under the word death, to see if there are details, more detailed details, something to make me understand what's happening. The dictionary is so heavy it's hard to pick up.

It says: the end of the life of a man, animal, or plant.

That's what it says, and then a hyphen: accidental, sudden, slow, immature--then a semicolon, etc., etc. This is to say it says nothing. It's not true that you can find answers in books.

And then to drop dead, to die a sudden death, dead tired, extremely tired, okay. Okay, I'm dead tired too, but I don't believe I'm dead. In books people never die for real, and not in the movies either. I let the dictionary fall to the floor. It drops dead too, its pages thrown open at the letter D like a cowboy shot down by Indians: You've got me, you dirty bastards.

We go into the kitchen. Blue circles me like the stupid ballerina in Grandma's music box. He seems fake too. His stiff whiskers are like her lace tutu. I put a pizza in the microwave. In a few minutes the pizza heats up and comes back to life. I burn my tongue on the mozzarella and the tip goes numb. I stick it out to show Blue, but he's not interested. He's also numb, and only wants a piece of pizza. Eating and sleeping, that's all Blue is interested in. I'll do what he does, even if I also have to go to school and do homework. If Mama is dead, I'll even have to do the grocery shopping, to bring food home for the family. I look for her purse to see if we have a little money to get by. We have a lot, actually, so there's that. There's also her bank card. I'll have to find her secret code. I'll have to practice with money because I'm not very good at it. I get confused by all the zeros, which seem like bubbles, impossible to hold on to. There's also her cell phone. I turn it off. Mama doesn't like me digging around in her bag, but I don't have a choice.

If she doesn't hurry and wake up, I just--I don't know.

If she saw me now, she'd yell at me, but she doesn't see me, doesn't think about me, doesn't want me. She couldn't care less what it means to be an orphan at my age. She's got her own problems, things I wouldn't understand. Her problems are bigger because she's bigger. I'm only a child, or an only child; it's the same thing, it just depends on how it comes out. Sunset over the Black Sea or the Red Sea at Night, depending on how you look at the painting.

I don't know what she sees. Adults can go away if they want; not me. I don't have anywhere else to go. I'm stuck here with her and her endless sleep at the end of the hall. I activate my periaudio, but I don't hear a thing; it's quiet as a grave. A periaudio is how bats hear when they're finding their way in the dark. It's a system for not smashing your face into obstacles, or at least for not doing it too hard, but this time I can't get it to work. I've got to stay with her even though she's stopped talking and listening to me. I've got to look after the cat, who's always hungry, and look after myself too.

Maybe Mama is a bitch. A bitch and an asshole. All adults are bitches and assholes. Jerks. Stinkers. Shitheads. Idiots. Retards. Stupid assholes. Shitty, stinking assholes. Pricks. Morons. I hate them.

It's like the hate in dreams, where if you hate something you really hate it, like having jerks toss piles of fucking shit in your face, and if you like something you really like it, like whole ocean liners full of hot chocolate and whole afternoons with Antonella. I can't do anything; I hate, hate not being able to do anything. But what can I do?

Please, Mama, I'm begging you to tell me what to do.

I feel like crying. I don't know if it's right to cry, but I think situations like this are normal. A normal child would cry, so I cry as much as I can. No one can see me anyway. Hot water gushes from my eyes while the polar bear on its cold slab is carried away by the current.

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