We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (YA)

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Reviewed by Bookgazing

E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars is a small book crammed to the brim with narrative experiment and investigation. Its story begins with sharp lines arranged in a whip crack formation that increases their punch and effect:

Welcome to the beautiful Sinclair family.
No one is a criminal.
No one is an addict.
No one is a failure.

This combination of crisp prose and repetition hits the reader like shots to the chest and quickly makes it clear that the content of the text does not match its meaning. Appropriate, considering the novel’s title and the fact that its narrator Cadence Sinclair Eastman likes ‘a twist of meaning’.

Caddy, as everybody calls her, is a protagonist who blurs the line between reality and fiction early on. In the first few pages, she tells the reader that her father left her and her mother when she was fifteen. In the middle of recounting this story Caddy suddenly says that ‘he pulled a handgun and shot me in the chest.’. As she continues, ‘The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my ribcage and down into the flower bed.’ it becomes clear that this image is a visceral metaphor for her grief rather than a real incident. With that deft turn We Were Liars shows the reader how easily Caddy can control their perception and seems to urge the reader to be on their guard against its narrator.

In recent years it’s been popular for novels to introduce protagonists who turn out to be antagonists; deceivers whose patchy memories are actually deliberately excised and edited. Caddy, the novel suggests, could be such a character. She’s lost a crucial part of her memory during an accident at her family’s private island in what she calls summer fifteen. Caddy’s group of island friends are called The Liars but what is the full significance of that title, and will Caddy turn out to be wilfully misleading?

By all indications, We Were Liars has some kind of surprise in store for readers. And so it turns out, as the return of Caddy’s memory provides the novel’s shocking final reveal. We Were Liars is built on a mystery-thriller structure and it switches between deliberately misdirecting its readers and offering them a fair chance at solving the central puzzle of what happened to Caddy in summer fifteen. The novel strives to keep its readers moving. Its layered prose, built from precise and often short sentences, creates a strong narrative drive which pushes the reader on past several opportunities to see the truth. And the novel is full of a sense of heady, opulent summer emotion designed to the make the reader fall ever deeper into The Liars friendship instead of focusing on possible clues to the twist. We Were Liars invested in its thriller side and the mystery is integral to the way it has been written.

However, the novel doesn’t just construct a fun mystery for readers to solve or be shocked by. It seeks a more permanent place in their hearts by adding extra layers to its story and bringing in different genre elements to complement the mystery structure. Coming of age, summer romance and family drama are all central to the story. Without the believable creation of The Liars and their friendship, Caddy’s romance with Gat and Caddy’s troubled relationship with her family there is no story no matter how many trails the mystery might throw out for reader to follow.

I particularly loved the way E. Lockhart used gothic elements in this story of bright summers on an island, but it’s difficult to discuss that element of the novel without giving away the ending. No one wants spoilers going into a mystery, so here’s just a taste of some gothic analysis which informs the text:

“You’re saying Grandad thinks you’re Heathcliffe?”
“I promise you, he does,” says Gat. “A brute beneath a pleasant surface, betraying his kindness in letting me come to his island every year – I’ve betrayed him by seducing his Catherine, his Cadence. And my penance is to become the monster he always saw in me.”

Caddy later adapts fairy tales to reflect back the racism that Gat encounters in a largely white environment. This fairytale critique of her Grandfather’s racism sometimes felt poorly formed to me, but the use of fairytales works better when Caddy shows how her grandfather dominates his three daughters. She tells several stories about how ‘Once upon a time there was a king who had three beautiful daughters.’ It rarely ends well for the controlling king’s daughters or their children in these stories.

We Were Liars has been unspooling a smart, thematic line throughout its development and it eventually ties all its strands, including its mystery heart, together to talk about that age old writerly preoccupation – how we make stories:

That is what the children know.
And they know that the stories
about their family
are both true and untrue.
There are endless variations.
And people will continue to tell them.

As the novel develops, Caddy uses stories to question the nature of storytelling itself, which ties in with the reader’s own questions about the narrative she is spinning. Her efforts to map the summer memories she has lost onto graph paper and to tell her story to the reader also link up with the story telling theme. The idea of questioning stories, which has already been positioned as a major element of the novel through the mystery structure and Gat’s repeated pokes at Caddy’s privileged world view is brought up again as it closes with Caddy’s true awakening: ‘There must be more to know. There will be more.’.

I’m astounded that a writer can make so many disparate parts of a novel contribute to one underlying idea without making these individual parts seem forced, obvious or simplistic. We Were Liars is magnificently controlled, something which is reflected in the precise writing style, and yet it feels unconstrained and smooth – almost as if it took no effort to write at all. Stories – always such tricksters. 

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E. Lockhart, We Were Liars (Hot Key Books, 2014), 240pp..

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