by Justine Larblestier
330 pages, Allen & Unwin
Review by SF Winser
This is the book about a girl who cries wolf too many times. Literally. Wolves do turn up. I think. Or not. Maybe it's a book about a girl who makes crap up, sometimes about wolves.
No – it's definitely a book about a girl who just makes up stuff. The thing is... How far does that go? How much truth is in what she is saying? Is there ANY?
From the moment you open this book, you know you have an unreliable narrator. That's a hard thing to start with. Usually this is something you discover as you read. Sometimes it's a twist reveal. Knowing that a book called 'Liar' is written in first-person about someone who admits to being a liar in the first few pages is HARD. It's hard as a writer, it's hard as a reader. One second guesses every statement.
Seriously, I cannot overstate this: Liar is hard work. It's brilliantly written and the narrator – Micah – is a thoroughly believable character. Damn. No she's not. She's a totally consistent- er- completely plausible? Meh, let's stick with that. You know what I mean. You believe in her as a person while disbelieving every word on the page.
As you should. Micah lies to her teachers. She lies to her parents. She lies to the reader. She lies – one suspects - to herself. And that's a lot to ask anyone to bear.
If someone lies to you, consistently, constantly and with repetitively insincere apologies, then it becomes very hard to suspend disbelief. Micah describes how this near pathological fibbing has driven many people away. It very nearly drives the reader away.
What keeps someone reading? It is, unfortunately, an unanswerable question. I kept reading this. partly out of hope of getting to the 'truth' in the story here, partly driven by the outstanding ambition and accomplishment of the writing. Partly because I just kinda hadta.
The problem being that the 'truth' here may simply be the last lie Micah tells. We never get a definitive version of the story at the heart of the novel. (or do we?) Which.. well.. let's be honest, I HATED that aspect. This is the perfect novel for a YA bookclub. There are a million possible explanations. It's clever and well-written. But, ultimately, I found it unsatisfyingly post-modern in the openness to interpretation. And the version of the tale we are finally told is weirdly supernatural after half a book of normal, everyday lies. It may be a wonderful descent into madness. It may be the tale of a girl caught up in unbelievable circumstances, forced to lie for good reasons... I could think of three more 'Maybe' versions off the top of my head. All of which is a brilliant achievement.. .But what does it add up to as an experience when the only satisfying interpretations are either stylistically annoying (flip to fantastic tropes halfway through a novel?) or narratively incomplete?
Has Micah finally slipped into pathology? If so, that means we've just read a story where we'll never get the actual truth...we just read a pack of plot-lies with no ACTUAL plot beyond what one decides to make up oneself; Fun, but does it count as a novel if there's no real plot? That's like ordering chicken and being served chicken soup. No matter how good the writing and ideas, it's not the narrative meat you are after when you pick up a novel. If the book is nothing BUT lies, then the truth is only whatever the reader decides and if that's the 'true' meaning of the book... then, screw it, I'll just write my own novel in the first place and avoid the interpretive frustrations.
And yet.. And yet... Why do I end up doing this? I had so many issues with this book and I will still defend it to the death. It's just so big. So brilliant. The writing is like the author has channeled a New York Teenager. Not a bad thing for an Aussie woman. It is an experience, being lied to so thoroughly and so well. Or even so badly that the lies feel more truthful than the truths. The lies are so consistent and cleverly warp into completely different narrative lines with a simple admission of falsehood. This WAS true, now it's not. And this new version gels with the old version so well with just that one change of fact that it feels like you are being shown the truth, finally. Until another lie is revealed. Or possibly that truth is obscured by a fresh lie. Who knows? Not I. Probably not Micah. Perhaps not even Larbalesiter. But there is a certain amount of fun to be had trying to figure out which is which.