Micah has been a compulsive liar all her life. Convincing her classmates that her father is a drug-dealer or her principal that she is a hermaphrodite is nothing to her. But when her secret boyfriend Zach is brutally murdered and all the school suspects her, Micah finally wants to stop lying. “I will tell you my story and I will tell it straight,” she says in the prologue. “No lies, no omissions. That’s my promise. This time I mean it.”
But does she?
If you’re wondering: yes, there are “speculative” elements in this story. Unless there aren’t. For Micah is a thoroughly unreliable narrator. There are multiple twists and reveals: times when you find out everything you knew was radically incomplete, and times when you find out something important was a lie, and times when you wonder if anything you know is true. At the end of the novel–and Larbalestier has said in interviews that this was her intent–there are at least two possible endings and no way to absolutely judge between them.
Since the plot is five-dimensional spaghetti doused in ambiguity sauce with a sprinkling of contradiction on the top, Liar has to run on style and characterization. The prose is good, though not the sort of near-poetry that will make me forgive anything. And Micah herself is an interesting and vivid character. She faces some really horrid situations; I really felt sorry for her and wanted her to be okay. But she’s also incredibly difficult to like, because she has almost no empathy for anyone until late in the story. Then she does change a bit . . . or she lies about changing. Or she lied about not caring in the first place. Do you see why this is a slightly frustrating novel?
The one unambiguous truth about Micah is that she loves Zach. I think this was meant to be one of the big emotional hooks of the story–and I love doomed romance, so I was ready to be hooked. But the problem is that Zach is a total sleazeball jerk. He cheats on his girlfriend. He boasts about getting girls to say “I love you” while never saying it himself. He tells Micah that their relationship “wasn’t love. It was something stronger.” Um, yeah, it was “getting Zach twice as much action with no consequences.” Intellectually, I acknowledge that Zach is a human being and a child of God, and therefore it’s awful that he was killed. But emotionally, I really don’t care.
In the end, I think that Liar is a victim of its own success. Larbalestier succeeds in creating a story that is vivid, unique, and fundamentally unknowable. I read the whole thing in just a couple sittings, so it worked for me to that extent. But I don’t read books to find stories I admire. I read books to find stories and characters I love, with the kind of emotional payoff that makes you laugh or cry or dance in circles. And I can’t invest emotionally in a story when I don’t know what’s happening or even what sort of person the heroine really is. Other readers, of course, may react differently; I suspect the quality of this story may be to a large extent subjective. Which I suppose is only fitting!
Needless to say, a story with a radically unreliable narrator does not simply advocate X, Y, or Z. Micah doesn’t have a lot of scruples; besides the lying and the lack of empathy, this manifests in a very permissive attitude towards sex. There isn’t anything onscreen, but there is a variety of making-out, some of it homoerotic. Oh, and at a certain point Micah basically says that she likes the idea of threesomes. What are we supposed to think about all this? Who knows! Personally, I’m willing to bet the author is on board with the sex stuff–though not the lying–but the logic of the story doesn’t force a conclusion.
Content: see the above, plus a variety of cursing and crude language, and discussion of a brutal murder. (Or is it?)