Liar by Justine Larbalestier

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Justine Larbalestier is an Australian young adult and fantasy author. I’d previously read her Magic or Madness trilogy, which I found to be entertaining but not especially impressive. But Liar is a very different sort of book. When I’d first started it, I thought it was, in terms of genre, a typical “realistic” fiction thriller, and was surprised to see it show up on The Carl Brandon Society’s site. I’d originally been listening to the audiobook, and got most of the way through the first section before the suspicious ipod disappearance, and while I’d more or less enjoyed it, it was sort of losing my attention, part of why I never did try to listen to it again. I’ve read some more reviews now that I’ve finished, and I’m not the only one who thought the end of Part 1 dragged a bit. But oh, it was so, so worth it to finish.

Now that I have finished it, I know why it qualified for the Carl Brandon Society and also why I hadn’t seen any hint of that before I started reading. The first big twist (but so definitely not the last) comes at the beginning of Part 2, but saying what it is would be a completely unfair spoiler. An unreliable narrator with a biased interpretation or worldview is one thing, but the immediate narrator-as-radically-untrustworthy premise makes the book a bit difficult to talk about, because so much of the experience is wondering how much of what Micah tells you is true, and what is another lie. The story is also told in a highly non-linear fashion, jumping between “before” and “after” the pivotal death of Micah’s classmate, with occasional forays into “family history” and Micah’s own childhood.

The only other time I’ve been so unable to trust the basic account of events in a story is Pale Fire. But Charles Kinbote’s motives and the pattern of his delusions are there to be teased out, among all of Nabokov’s other narrative tricks (some people think they’re a whole lot more buried than I do, but I find them unconvincing). Micah is just such a damn good liar. Her voice is so compelling, and her motives and her own inner feelings so layered with deception, I’m still not sure what to think. There’s a definite lady-or-tiger element, in that one’s choice of interpretations say as much about the reader as the story itself, and of course Larbalestier’s position is “what do you think really happened?” The things she states unequivocally are: Micah is 17, biracial, she lives in the East Village of New York City, and she had a reciprocal relationship with Zach. Which is nice if you crave authoritative certainty, but of course, authorial intent is dead and I generally feel free to distrust what artists say about their own work.

My own interpretation is that those things are true, and I do believe that Micah is at least being honest in her desire to be truthful, but mainly because the story would be about so much less, otherwise. Like I said about Pale Fire, I think if you are going to look for argue for a radically different interpretation of a story’s “truth,” it ought at least to be in service of a good narrative payoff.

The most important thing about the story is that it’s a great psychological thriller and mystery. Once I restarted the book, I finished it in an afternoon, full of all the tension and doubt a good thriller should instill, plus the extra mind-bending factor of Liar’s own peculiarities. It’s been nominated for several awards, and I certainly see why. It’s one of the most remarkable novels I’ve read in some time.