Liar by Justine Larbalestier, and the unreliable narrator

Australian cover of Liar by Justine Larbalestier

The Australian cover of Liar

I finished Liar, a tasty tale from the rather accomplished pen of Justine Larbalestier, last night, and it’s got me thinking, even the morning after and before I’ve finished my first coffee.

The story is excellent. The prose is delightful, told in first person from the point of view of Micah, a teenager in New York City. Her dad is black and her mother white French. She’s a loner at school who takes delight in running through the streets and especially Central Park; she’s very good at running, she tells us. But her real skill is lying. And there’s the rub.

Larbalestier has taken the notion of the unreliable narrator and stuck it right out there, in big red letters in the case of the Australian cover (the covers in the US caused quite a stir due to the foolish attempt of the publisher to feature a white face on the cover when the narrator is black – a lie too far: read about the covers at Justine’s blog) (side note: how many writers get 167 comments on a blog post? wicked!).

The book is broken into three parts, each one promising to tell even more of the truth, and each one correcting statements that have gone before. The event that triggers the story is the death of one of the students at the school. It is the fulcrum: the slices of narrative are told as before or after this key event, with a few background notes thrown in (in exactly the right place). The fact that the boy is dead appears true. The rest is pretty much up for grabs: Micah’s relationship with him, her relationship with her family and their background, an illness that defines how her family treats her and, in part, why Micah is the way she (maybe) is. It’s all seen through the lens of a practised liar.

Even though I knew I was being lied to, but not knowing when or in which way, the prose — the voice — sucked me in and I found the book compelling. Little truths used to enhance big lies, revised, revisited, compounded, revealed. At story’s end, I really don’t know what to believe. In fact, Micah challenges me in those last pages; even if I had worked out what I reckoned the truth was, or even what I wanted to believe it was, she’s poking her tongue at me, saying, You sure about that?

No, I’m not sure about it. And that’s what’s bugging me. I want to be able to call up some newspaper files and see what the recorded truth is. I want to know what the truth of Micah’s situation is, there at the end: I’m happy to not be sure about the actuality of the journey, but I’d like to be sure about the destination. Would a second, more attentive reading, result in more surety, or would it just compound the frustration?

Liar is a gorgeous teenage mystery. That much is true.