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E Lockhart – We Were Liars

Book Cover

Be aware that whilst I don’t discuss the ending here, I do talk about some of the themes. Some genre tags have been left out on purpose.

If you’re not happy or having trouble you sweep it under the rug and plaster a big ol’ smile on your face.

Publisher: Hot Key Books
Pages: 223
Type: Fiction
Age: Young Adult
ISBN: 978-1-471-40398-9
First Published: 13th May 2014
Date Reviewed: 23rd September 2015
Rating: 5/5

The Sinclair family holidays on their private island every summer. It’s a paradise where they can enjoy their time away from the world. Have fun, spend time together, not discuss anything of importance. Because the Sinclairs don’t do problems. They are normal, perfect, wealthy, and heaven forbid anyone who rocks the boat.

I knew within the first few pages of this book that it was going to be exceptional. I’ve never experienced that before – going in knowing nothing but recognising excellence straight away. The best way to describe We Are Liars is to say that it’s uniquely unique – there’s the thought that all stories have been told, all books now just variations, but this one seems far from it. The basics may have been told but the way Lockhart handles the situations makes it individual. You’ve never read a book like this.

The author favours a particular style of writing. She uses the same colloquialisms as many others but you’d be hard-pressed to be unable to tell it apart from the rest. Lockhart interweaves her prose with the concept of poetry, pieces of sentences set one line after the other without applying the same amount of effort, so to say, as your usual poet does. The poetry aspects do read as poetry but whether there’s rhyming or a steady pace is not important, rather Lockhart uses the concept of poetry to get the reader focusing their attention on the exact words, thoughts, she wants you to focus on, to emphasise her meaning. It’s amazing.

Both plot and characters are important to Lockhart, who greatly favours showing. So much does she show, in fact, that you may well miss the hints she provides as to what happened. But this is not a bad thing. The author abides by the sentiment expressed by one of her characters, who says:

“Someone once wrote that a novel should deliver a series of small astonishments.”

This well describes Lockhart’s method: draw the story out. Let the findings start small, slowly building before the crescendo. Slow it down without increasing the word count. This method means you’ll think you’ve discovered the essence of the book only to realise there’s far more to it, and far more to that and so on. Even though there’s a definite end to the book that rests on plot, mini themes abound and are important.

Most obviously there’s privilege. The whole set up, the private island with its big houses and staff and owners who have enough money to be able to call the island a summer holiday home whilst owning even more property elsewhere, is almost unbelievable. The set up is paradise for rich white people, people who don’t even know the names of the staff who’ve stocked their fridges for years. Lockhart need say little; whilst it may be fun, an escape from the reader’s own life to read about this ideal, it’s also uncomfortable.

Uncomfortable on its own and because of the way white is supreme. You could almost call this book delicious in its handling of the subject of racism. By this I mean there’s a lot of racism but it drifts out, ripples in a soft, slow, motion. It’s the subtle sort, the oh my gosh darling we must be polite but try not to shake their brown hands sort. Thus Lockhart demonstrates the sort of prejudice that can be difficult to call out because it’s deftly handled by those who own it, deniable because it’s kept under the surface. Warnings, such as the hints at what could happen to those who overstep their mark are couched in nice terms that fly over others’ heads.

“Watch yourself, young man,” said Granddad, sharp and sudden.
“Pardon me?”
“Your head. You could get hurt.”
“You’re right,” said Gat. “You’re right, I could get hurt.”
“So watch yourself,” Granddad repeated.

This deals with Gat, the only non-white family member on the island whose presence signals a new episode of sorts to this pristine family. As he says himself, he is Heathcliff, a good person, family – sort of – who is expected to become angry in time and ruin things because that’s what outsiders are supposed to do.

Along with privilege and trying to keep everyone away from the family comes the drive to be ‘normal’. You cannot show feelings, no one is an addict or a criminal, everything must be nice, normal, at all times. The media and the world must see perfection. This has a huge affect on the family. Your father leaves? No tears, pick yourself up. Don’t reference your dead grandmother. Forgetting people is a large part of keeping up appearances – taking down photographs is very important. We see the affects mostly in our narrator, Cadence, who finds it difficult to stay silent, who grieves for longer than she would if she were allowed to express her thoughts. A lot of metaphorical bleeding and falling goes on in this book.

The island is a paradise away from the world that never changes and can’t be ruined by life in general but as Cadence says in one of the many variations of a fairy tale she writes (in order to further explain situations):

If you want to live where people are not afraid of mice [Gat], you must give up living in palaces.

I can’t neglect friendship here. It’s what holds the novel together from the beginning, the emergence of a generation that sees the falsehood in the world their parents have created. The title has as much to do with the teenagers – literally the liars – as with the whole family. The false happiness shrouded by a one-upmanship as the sisters try to gain daddy’s love and property.

If you work out the truth of what happened before it’s revealed you may find it easier, if you don’t, and in a way I hope you don’t because it would lose its impact, it’s both satisfying in a literary way and emotionally draining. Lockhart provides all the answers, preferring to restrict vagueness to the middle of the story, leaving the end complete. You need to know what happened to understand a lot of this book and to appreciate what Lockhart is saying about impact.

We Were Liars is awesome. Individual, beautiful, wretched, poetic and embedded in life as much as it’s a blissful escape from it. Let the prose warm you as the story leaves you chilled. Even paradise must face reality.

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September 28, 2015, 3:13 pm

Such a great review. I enjoyed this book immensely, and some of the things I admired, but had a hard time putting into words, you’ve expressed beautifully.

Tracy Terry

September 29, 2015, 3:39 pm

Interesting post in that I find myself totally conflicted by this one. On the one hand intrigued and yet on the other hand the interweaving of prose with the concept of poetry does not appeal.



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