We Were Liars by E Lockhart

We Were Liars falls into the 'young adult' category, with a group of teenagers as the primary characters and 17-year-old Cadence as the narrator. It does, however, work well as a 'crossover' novel that will appeal to adult readers as well as its core teenage readership. I can't pretend that, at the age of 39, I didn't cringe slightly at the adolescent intensity of Cadence's feelings for her childhood friend Gat, but by and large, this book worked perfectly well for me as an adult reader.

Image result for we were liarsCadence is the eldest grandchild in the Sinclair family, an extremely rich New England dynasty headed by 'Granddad' Harris Sinclair. The Sinclairs are sufficiently well-off to own a private island off the New England coast, dotted with purpose-built homes of various size which are allotted to Harris and his three daughters and their children. Cadence, in theory, is the heir to the Sinclair fortune, but the estate is vast and easily carved up, and Granddad is becoming increasingly capricious and tyrannical as he begins to show signs of dementia and wordlessly mourns his late wife, Tipper. Every summer, the whole family assembles on the island, and the four eldest grandchildren - the 'Liars' - form an intense and unbreakable bond.

It is, on most levels, hard to feel sorry for the Sinclair children. They go to private schools, have everything they need, and have ridiculous rich-American-people names like Mirren and Taft. Even the supposed poor boy - a distant step-relative, distinct from the blonde, blue-eyed Sinclairs because he happens to have an Indian mother - is called 'Gatwick' and lives in relative affluence in central New York. They have the island to themselves, servants at their beck and call, access to a motor boat and a constant supply of delicious picnics, almost as if they were some sort of modern day American Famous Five.

However, all is not as it seems, and it's a solid endorsement of E Lockhart's skill that as the book progresses we become fully aware that money doesn't solve all problems - and can even create them, too. Cadence's distinctive voice gives us a narrative peppered with jarring, fractured moments, and with strange moments of inability to distinguish metaphor from reality. Because something terrible happens to Cadence during her fifteenth summer with the Liars, leaving her debilitated by severe migraines, reliant on strong medication and, most importantly, completely unable to remember anything about that summer at all.

We Were Liars is a compelling and at times unsettling psychological mystery, convincingly written in the voice of a bright, sharp teenager who gradually becomes painfully aware of her own shortcomings as well as her family's. Cadence is not always likeable and frequently spoilt, but it's impossible not to feel sorry for her even as the very worst of her character slowly reveals itself. Some may consider the eventual unveiling of the truth about Cadence's accident to be a little gimmicky, but it is beautifully handled and almost painfully heartbreaking, even for those who have little patience with teen angst and spoilt little rich girls.

Beyond the character of Cadence, I can't honestly say the other main players are particularly well-rounded. Cadence's cold, brittle mother and her two sisters battle for their father's affections like King Lear's daughters - or rather, like King Lear's daughters if Cordelia had never existed; in other words, they are barely distinct from one another. Cadence's cousins Johnny and Mirren and love interest Gat are charming enough but not tremendously distinctive. If anything, it's Granddad Harris who stands out, but his role is relatively small.

All that said, I thoroughly enjoyed We Were Liars, with its clear, uncluttered prose, insightful observations and its smart, unpatronising treatment of teenage angst and family strife. If you have a teenage daughter who hasn't read this yet, buy it for her pronto.

 

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