Monday, May 21, 2012

YA Book review: Liar by Justine Larbalestier

Liar by Justine Larbalestier is a young adult book told by 17 year old Micah, about her boyfriend's death, and the increasingly complicated, unbelievable and finally, outright scary circumstances around it.

The reason I picked up Liar was because apart from it looking generally interesting, it was tentatively thrown out as a lesbian YA book. So I'll address that bit first.

It's not, really. It is a book that touches on transgenderism and 'presenting' in the wrong body, but whether the entire story is a metaphor or just some interesting moments that are no more relevant than the many other interesting moments, will depend entirely on the reader (and the essay question, as I see this book getting analysed to death!).

It is a book that features two moments of bisexual girl-girl desire, but it is unclear whether it is in two directions, whether either girl is ever generally interested in other girls, or whether it was a 'caught up in the moment, and the connection and the hormones' sort of situation (or a flexible sexuality one). Personally, I read it as our narrator being genuinely attracted, but our narrator is unreliable. And doesn't tend to give context to that sort of thing. But the entire story is about her and the boy she loves. Though he's dead from the beginning. I wouldn't call it lesbian fiction. I would call it interesting, and worth including on LGBTQ reading lists.

Micah, our narrator, is a skinny, loner girl with a terrible secret and some odd medical issues and abilities, which have shadowed her whole life, and her family's. They are a line of liars. Her one skill is her running, and she bonded with Zach over that. When she loses him, her world starts to fall apart.

The story unfolds with her boyfriend, Zach, missing. Nobody knows how or why, and speculation runs riot at school, until they find out that he's dead. For the first half of the book, we get Micah's grief, unfolding secrets about where she was and what she was doing, and her past, as she tells us something, then has to say a bit later on that, actually, it was this less believable or more incriminating thing, but I obviously couldn't tell you that earlier. Most of it is set at school, with unfolding gossip and politics and even some racism (Micah is a half breed, in her own words, not fitting in with anyone, not even 'other' people of colour).

Micah takes birth control pills, initially because she allegedly suffers from suffers from excessively heavy bleeding and pain during her periods, which could be a fascinating area of discussion around bleeding disorders, or endometriosis (and not something the average teen character suffers from). There are a couple of moments of horrible violence, and it does turn into quite a thriller, but it's perfectly fine for teens (15 is probably the target audience).

It is a good book. It is easy to read, and interesting, the lies make sense and the overt ones generally stand out enough to also make sense when they are revealed as lies. The whole thing could be a fantastical story, but then so are all stories. By accepting the final underlying story on faith (although being suspicious of some of what Micah told us later), I was able to remain invested enough to enjoy it.

The problem, the really big problem, with reviewing Liar is that it is told by a classic unreliable narrator, twists revealed as you go, type of story. Even an accurate summary gives away half the plot. Actually, most of the plot is in the storytelling, and the retelling and the reveals, not the actual story.

If you know you like interesting, easy to read, urban fantasy/thriller/unreliably yet charmingly narrator, high school drama books featuring loner nonconformists with hints of race and gender issues, then you should very much enjoy Liar. 

But I hate picking up books with no idea, literally no idea, what kind of book it is, and I know that some people will only be reading reviews to decide if they want to buy it for someone else, so I'll provide some summary.  And THAT is going under the cut and under a space. And while I'm giving away some of the twists, I'm not guaranteeing that it's all of them, or even the biggest or the most reliable revelations.

(the last part is spoiler free space, so clicking the comments link is safe).

So Micah's family are liars. And werewolves. And once this comes out, the second half of the book is a fascinating exploration into a believable and dangerous condition, turned on its head. Not only does Micah have a new secret, and pose an incredible risk to her family, but maybe she's the one who called Zach.. Then a skinny street kid comes into the picture, and Micah decides that he's responsible. Not her. But that means that he needs to be dealt with.

The science side of it - the pseudo science, speculation, wolf species side, all at high school level because so was Micah - was smart and added a layer of realism. The birth control pills, the interweaving of old myths (hairy palms) and the linking of the change to menstruation and females, rather than the moon, all made the werewolf myth believable. It read as a real, genuine medical issue (with a certain suspension of disbelief, obviously, and the underlying 'maybe this is the lie'). They even match to real species of wolf.

The girl-girl kissing part is when she and boy who was a friend of Zach's, and Zach's 'real' girlfriend are all bonding in a private place that Zach used to take Micah - and oh, there are hints there that maybe Micah was the only one in love, and that opens up a completely different possibility, that he cheated on her as well, and she killed him, and is in denial about all of it. But Micah doesn't like to dwell on anything that says that Zach didn't care about her, so we move past that possibility, and the three friends - of Zach, not each other, exactly - suddenly start kissing each other. Except possibly they don't, as Micah later reveals - or claims - that different people started it, and maybe she just wanted it. And this happens again later. So it could be a bisexual kissing episode, brought on by closeness or by Micah's own hormones, or it could be simply that Micah wanted to kiss both the others.

She never turns around and says 'hah, it wasn't real! I actually only pretend I'm a wolf in order to cope!'. We get a maybe, a 'perhaps I am crazy and killed people and am now pretending I turned into a wolf and never killed them', a 'maybe I'm writing this from a cell about the how I wished it would turn out', and even a 'maybe I am a wolf, but it didn't work out quite the way I told you it did'.

In many ways, it's similar to Lunatic Fringe [being reviewed], though that's a much more complicated read.


The ending gets vague and summarised quickly and somewhat more unbelievable. But no less believable than the rest of the story, when we have our charming, fickle, serious narrator to guide us through.

  • 2009 Carl Brandon Kindred Award
  • 2009 WA Premier’s Literary Award, Young Adult Prize
  • 2009 Fellowship of Australian Writers (FAW) Christina Stead Award
You can buy Liar on Amazon in paperback, hardback and audio editions, but not as an eBook. 

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