Sunday, 17 October 2010

Liar by Justine Larbalestier

Q: How many surrealists does it take to change a light bulb?
A: Fish.

The astounding Liar by Justine Larbalestier reminds me of this old joke. Not because the book doesn’t make sense, but because it constantly jolts your reality, forcing you to adapt to a new idea of what the story is about. Just when you get comfortable – bam! – it does it again. And again. And again. By the time you get to the end of the book you’re reeling from the constant body blows as the story keeps shifting.

Liar is a hard book to talk about, because it’s such a mind-blowing ride you don’t want to give anything away and spoil the experience for others. It’s narrated by Micah, a girl who admits she lies all the time, but is promising to tell us, the readers, the real truth. Larbalestier takes the concept of an unreliable narrator to such extremes it leaves you wondering how she managed to keep track of her slippery, twisting story. It does your head in just trying to keep up when you’re reading it – imagine holding it all in your head long enough to write it!

Every time you think you know what’s going on, Micah begins a new section by admitting that half of what she just told you isn’t true. Now she’s going to tell you what really happened. Only when you get to the next section it’s “well, actually, I know I said that was the truth, but, no, really – this is what happened”.

And you just keep on falling for it. Well, I did, anyway. And that’s what makes this book so clever. All fiction is lies, isn’t it, by definition. Fiction is made-up stories. When we read fiction, we agree to go along with whatever version of reality the author is presenting. It’s part of the deal – you tell me a good story, and I’ll accept for the moment that talking caterpillars exist, that other planets are populated by alien species, whatever it takes.

So we come to fiction happy to swallow the biggest fattest porkies an author can come up with, in the name of entertainment. We expect to be lied to. But the unwritten rule is that the author must present the lies as truth and we’ll accept it as such for the duration of the book.

So when a book like this comes along, where the narrator keeps pulling the rug out from under us, it really throws us. Maybe I’m a slow learner, but it took at least ten of these episodes before I got it through my head that this narrator really meant it when she said she was a liar. Every time she said “actually, what I just told you was crap, but now I’m telling you the truth” I believed her, because I’m so conditioned to the way fiction works. I was almost at the end before it dawned on me that maybe I would never find out “the truth”. I kept turning pages, unable to stop, desperate to “find out what happened”, because that’s what books are normally about – finding out what happened.

Only with this book you have to figure it out for yourself. And there’s not just one possible answer. Pivotal moments in the plot may or may not have happened. Whole characters may or may not really exist. Days later I’m still thinking about it. Talk about “choose your own adventure”! But how do you weigh the “evidence” when it’s all unreliable? Maybe none of it was true??

Awesome, awesome book. It’s just been nominated for a Children’s Book Council Award, and I hope it wins. I don't know what else has been nominated, though I’m sure they’re all good books, but this is something very special. A book like this doesn’t come along very often.

Now I just wish I knew someone who’d read it so we could discuss it! It makes you want to compare notes with everyone, and see what they thought happened. I may have to force it on the Carnivore, though I suspect his accountant’s soul will not deal well with the lack of certainty.

Also, there are no car chases.


  1. This is on my TBR list, and I'm looking forward to it!

  2. Jenn, to save frustration, try to get a friend to read it at the same time, so you'll have someone to discuss it with!