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September Discussion – We Were Liars by E.Lockhart

liarsBe Warned – Spoilers Ahead!

We Were Liars by E.Lockhart was a novel that raised some strong feelings from us as we read it.  Some of us commented that it was a story that we could not stop thinking about and it stayed with us long after we had finished reading it – almost, for some, eliciting a visceral reaction.  It was a clever but depressing read for some whilst others loved the metaphorical language and symbolism.

When we thought of the Sinclair family we were reminded of the Kennedy family of Massachusetts.  Some of the themes that resonated were the wealth, privilege, deception, loss, abuse of power and private idyllic island holiday childhood, that are synonymous with this family.  We could not help but think of the distinct parallels with the ‘covering up’ of the Chappaquiddick Island incident of 1969 involving Edward Kennedy and the death of Mary Jo Kopechne.  We noted the concept of the great “American tragedy” – that a family that seems to have so many blessings has also had so much misfortune.  The comment was made that tragedies happen to people around the globe all the time but as a society we seem to be obsessed when bad things happen to high profile people.  On a local note we discussed the recent events around a family in Brisbane, who seemed “to have it all”, and the media circus that ensued from their fall from grace. The old adage “the higher you fly the farther you fall” – can be applied to this situation. We noted that when tragedy strikes the “beautiful people” it seems shocking that they are somehow not above this, that their wealth, beauty or privilege does not protect them. We wondered whether this is part of a “tall poppy” syndrome and that on one level, it is satisfying to see the mighty fall – a depressing view on humanity surely?

There are many themes present in this novel – privilege, family and race in particular were discussed.  We asked the question – is this novel just about the problems of “poor little rich kids”? Whilst that is certainly a valid question this novel is about so much more. It is clear from the beginning of this novel that something is not quite right – quite early on the reader knows that something terrible has happened to Cady.  We tossed around the ideas that came to us when we were reading – some of us thought that it was most likely that she had been sexually assaulted (by Gat, his uncle, the cousin, the grandfather?) or that there had been an incident involving drugs.  None of us had imagined the actual occurrence, although there is plenty of foreshadowing.

We began by discussing the idea of the unreliable narrator – we were unsure at times whether Cady was lying or hallucinating or delusional.  Our exposure to the text is also very restricted – after all, we only see what Cady wants us to see and as she has amnesia she is discovering the story at the same time as the reader. The structure of the novel, alternating between present time and flashbacks, contributes to the building of suspense and mystery.  Liars is a first-person narrative that taps into fairy tale retellings, hallucinatory episodes of violence and scenes that are repeated with new interpretations from differing perspectives at different points in the story. After the big reveal we noted that yes, there had been many clues along the way – although it would be unlikely that we would have pieced them together. Curious scenes and incidences such as the renovation of the big house, the death of the dogs, the removal of the tree and swing, the no-replies to her emails, Carrie’s (Johnny’s mother) nightly wanderings around the island, Cady’s mother encouraging her to spend time with the younger cousins, why the Liars didn’t meet her at the jetty, the cautious and fragile relations between the sisters, and Cady’s time spent at the house each day foreshadow the “incident” and all make so much more sense when all is revealed.  We agreed that it was a very clever and complex structure that pulled the whole story together.

Elements of intertextuality are certainly present in this novel – in some ways this novel is a construction of known fairy tale elements with the addition of quite deliberate references to King Lear and Wuthering Heights.  The story of King Lear – the repercussions of the devastating, posionous competition of sibling rivalry that ensues after the ailing monarch determines to choose between three daughters – is replicated in this text.  This family has all the normal problems and issues that face families; however, this family puts on a stiff upper lip and nothing is ever discussed,

 I looked at her. My lovely, tall mother with her pretty coil of hair and her hard, bitter mouth. Her veins were never open. Her heart never leapt out to flop helplessly on the lawn. She never melted into puddles. She was normal. Always. At any cost.

They are the Sinclairs and image is everything.  As Gat notes, Grandfather Sinclair wants to be seen as the publically enlightened man (he voted for Obama) but that does not mean he is comfortable with welcoming a man of colour into his WASP family (it was noted that even the dogs are blonde!).  Gat spells out the parallels to Wuthering Heights to Cady, thus opening her eyes to a side of her family hitherto unnoticed,

You’re saying Granddad thinks you’re Heathcliff?”
“I promise you, he does,” says Gat. “A brute beneath a pleasant surface, betraying his kindness in letting me come to his sheltered 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.

We noted that whilst the grandmother Tipper (such a privileged name) is alive there is a semblance of normality and peace, but once her influence is removed the jockeying amongst the sisters to be the father’s favourite begins in earnest – a dance that, like Lear, Harris Sinclair fosters.

One of the features that was most enjoyed in this novel was the atmospheric, lyrical imagery. We discussed some of our favourite metaphors including, “my veins opened. My wrists split. I bled down my palms” (p29) and “silence is a protective coating over pain” (p29). The text is interspersed with abrupt statements, florid, languorous passages and sometimes contradictory statements which build the atmosphere of tension and mystery.

Lockhart sets out ambitiously to write a novel that addresses privilege, disappointment and anger through the lens of youth and we thought this was successfully achieved.  Some of us mentioned an interest in reading about children who have committed crimes and their motivations. Some of us were also reminded of Ian McEwan’s Atonement where, similarly, lives are ruined because of the foolish actions of a child. We were mixed about our levels of sympathy for Cady – we talked about the Liar’s motivation and the self-righteousness of youth that led them to this action,

 What if
God sent it up in flames?
Thus he would punish the greedy, the petty, the prejudiced, the normal, the unkind.
They would repent of their deeds.
And after that, learn to love one another again.
Open their souls. Open their veins. Wipe off their smiles.
Be a family. Stay a family.
It wasn’t religious, the way we thought of it.
And yet it was.
Purification through flames.
Or both.

In much the same manner as The Great Gatsby the reader is left feeling that these are indeed careless people and the tragedy is of their own making.

What troubled us regarding Cady’s guilt and pain is the fact that for Cady there can be no atonement as she has not faced any external punishment for her actions.  We were not sure whether or not the adults knew that the fire had been deliberately lit by Cady or whether they thought it was an accident – either way,

Of course they wouldn’t prosecute.
No one here is a criminal.
No one is an addict.
No one is a failure

The Sinclairs are above reproach and consequence.  Although we do not get a deep insight into the characters to truly connect with them, the loss is still a shock when it happens.

One point that was never fully explained for us is why the group were called Liars – we did not come to any consensus on this matter.  This has proved to be a popular book in some of the schools in years 9-12 and was well-received by the book club members.