I’ve been contemplating how to review We Were Liars without revealing its many secrets. I realize I don’t even want to review it. What I want is to hand it to a good friend who will tear through it just as I did, and at the end when they come up gasping for air, shaken and silent, they will come back to me. We’ll curl up together in a soft blanket on a warm night under the stars and we will discuss every subtlety and twist.
For now I will just follow the instructions written on the postcard found tucked inside my copy: “Jenna, please lie about this book.” And so I shall.
Imagine the most perfect American summer day that ever was. A childhood dream cast with diamond-bright clarity. Gentle ocean, dappled sunlight, lemons and sugar melting on your tongue, sky and blood the same shade of patrician blue. Sundresses and fresh berry pie topped with homemade ice cream and the kind of soul-binding friendships that only form in youth.
Imagine an island where all of this is possible, a utopia sheltered by old money where each summer shimmers with the fairytale glamour of a Ralph Lauren ad. Now imagine the island as viewed from beneath the water, tethered precariously to the earth by only a thin crust of rock. The relentless circling of sharks has nearly caused the island to come unmoored. The world is not as safe as it may seem from above. One wrong move, a strong gust of wind, the weight of too many thoughtless words, and we will all be eaten alive.
“Sharks?” you might ask. “Someone gets eaten by a shark?” But no, I’m lying. The only sharks here are human and it is hard to decide even weeks after finishing the book who the sharks were. Perhaps all of them. By them I mean the Sinclair family, to whom we are introduced by Cadence.
“..Dad announced he was leaving…Then he pulled out a handgun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my ribcage and down into a flower bed.”
Descriptions like this riddle the pages with hyperbolic glee and from the beginning it’s clear that there will be no firm ground on which to stand. Lockhart’s use of an unreliable narrator is brilliantly executed. The vast majority of literature has trained us to trust our narrator: the all-seeing oracle, the keeper of Story. How else would we make it through a tale? It’s part of the deal you make when engaging a book: I will suspend disbelief, I will follow where this voice is leading. But a narrator who can’t be trusted to tell or even know the truth is a topsy-turvy, unsettling proposition. We might follow her down a rabbit hole that never leads out into daylight, that only spirals down deeper, forever.
Some people hate this device, but I find it much truer to reality. Human experience is not linear. It is full of holes and missing time which we stitch together into the version of the truth our minds can endure. We are all unreliable narrators. Given the chance to tell our own tales, we are all a bunch of liars.
Yes, but what is the book about? Stop being dodgy! It’s the small tale of what happens over a handful of summers in the lives of one stunningly perfect, pathetically crumbling family. The casting off and clinging onto of artifice and greed. The complexity and simplicity of human interaction. Princes, princesses and a lonely old tyrant and castles that cannot stand. The blinding convictions of youth, immune to nuance and consequence.
I feel that’s all I can say without giving away too much. But for a book full of liars, there is a voice of such truth and brutal beauty to be found here. You should read it and then, well- and then I will make us a cozy spot beneath the vast sky and we will whisper lies about it together.