There’s a ruckus going down at Pirriwee Public Kindergarten where there ought to be an ordinary fund-raising trivia night. Elderly Mrs Ponder who lives across from the school and has her own thoughts about modern parenting, is astonished to hear the screaming and yelling as parents dressed like Audrey Hepburn and Elvis spill out into the warm Australian night. And then it gets very serious when one parent falls over the balcony rails to an untimely death. Was it an accident or was it intentional? Who fell and who saw it happen? And now Liane Moriarty’s latest insanely gripping story really begins.
We zip back in time six months before the fundraiser riot to orientation day for the new children at Pirriwee public, an idyllic-looking school situated moments from the beach. Newcomer to the region, Jane, is taking her son, Ziggy, with more than the usual qualms of an anxious parent. Jane has been drifting since Ziggy was born, the product of a one-night stand that went horribly wrong, and is hoping in the face of all her doubts that she will finally settle. Luckily for her she meets Madeleine, who characteristically has hurt her ankle after an attempt to reprimand irresponsible teenagers causes her to fall in her Dolce and Gabanna stillettos.Madeleine is shallow, capricious, emotional, prone to conflict and lots of fun. She’s happily married to Ed and mother to new-kindergartener, Chloe. But she has a teenage daughter, Abigail, from a first marriage, and an ex who has thoughtlessly moved to the area with his new wife and daughter, Skye, also there for orientation. Nathan walked out on Madeleine when Abigail was just a baby and she has never forgiven him; the fact that he seems so keen on the father role this second time around only grinds salt into the wound. And then there is Madeleine’s best friend, Celeste, a woman who inspires jealousy in everyone for her beauty and her picture-perfect life with rich hedge-fund manager, Perry, and their twin boys. Her life seems too good to be true; and it is. The question of whether or not she can leave it haunts her every day.
The troubles really begin when there is an ‘incident’ among the children on that orientation day. Ziggy is accused of having attacked one of the little girls, one whose mother is, alas, a powerful business woman and a regular financial contributor to the school. Ziggy’s protests that he didn’t do it fall on her deaf and vengeful ears, and Jane is torn between her instinctive belief in her son and her fears about Ziggy’s possible genetic inheritance. Madeleine, who likes Jane and empathises with her single mother status, is instantly on her side, escalating the conflict. Given that no parent is without a strong emotional response to the possibility of a bully in the midst, the arguments about that day divide the small community and cause all sorts of consequences in the lives of children and adults alike.
One of Moriarty’s brilliant conceits in this novel is to show how the laws of the playground never really go away, no matter how old or ostensibly grown-up we become. The bullying incident seems blown out of all proportion – and yet this is entirely plausible in the contemporary world of the helicopter parent and the extreme response now generated around children’s innate vulnerability. And then, we get to see just how dangerous unchecked violent urges can be, as she takes the plotline to the community of parents and explores the issue of domestic violence with a fearsomely astute eye. This is something I’ve noticed about all Liane Moriarty’s novels: the outlines of her characters are drawn with a broad, colorful brush – we’ve all known people like them – and yet she draws in the details of their thoughts and reactions with stunning accuracy. They become such real people on the page because the way they think and react is so honest and true. Her explorations of the twisted emotional logic of wife-beating are excruciatingly believable. You find yourself understanding entirely why the woman stays while urging her desperately to pack up and leave.
If this makes the novel sound heavy in any way, it really isn’t. The other thing Moriarty does much better than most writers of this kind of book is humour. It’s hard to credit how many times a novel about the consequences of violence can make you laugh out loud. It’s a clever trick to pull off, to write something at once so amusing and so profound, and few are able to do it. But Moriarty really knows how kids speak, and how families create running gags, and how finding the comedy in the usual run of domestic drudgery keeps us all sane. However fraught her world might be, you can’t help but want to live in it.
I’ve been a fan of Liane Moriarty for many years now and think she just gets better and better. If you’ve never read her, you’re in for a real treat, and this novel is a wonderful place to start.
Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors
Liane Moriarty, Little Lies (Big Little Lies in the US), (Michael Joseph, 2014) 978-1405918466, 464 pages, hardback.