Lies we tell ourselves by Robin Talley

An eloquent, impressive and poignant novel about the integration of black students into the previously segregated Jefferson High, Virginia, 1959.

lies we tell

Sarah is one of the ten black students starting at Jefferson High this year; after years of persistent battling in court, she’s finally going to get the best education possible. But the abuse she and her friends receive when they start is overwhelming, and they all feel a wave of despair when it doesn’t even start to cease. And then Lindsay Hairston catches Sarah’s eye. The daughter of the state’s most influential pro-segregation journalist, and Sarah can’t stop thinking about her. And now Sarah isn’t only afraid of what society will think of this aching desire, as tendrils of disgust and fear are already writhing around her own heart. Because not only is she afraid of everyone’s opinion, but startlingly, she’s frightened of what she is feeling, too.

Firstly, this is a novel which admirably recreates and explores the racial tension that society strongly felt at the time. It is an arduous topic to write about, especially to such high standard, so that Talley deserves credit for that. But occasionally I felt that the plot became slightly flat because Talley got so caught up in the issues she was writing about, that there was less of a drive in certain parts of the novel. It is told from the alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Lindsay, which enhanced the novel because it was useful to see the contrast between the two characters’ lives.

Sarah, the protagonist, is a resilient, intelligent and kind character, which is fortunate for her, because everyday at school she faces physical and mental abuse. In fact, soon after you pick up the novel, you will find yourself cheering for Sarah as she starts to forge her own destiny out the prejudices she faces.

The title is smart; it relates to the rest of the novel because every chapter title is a lie; the lies the various characters tell themselves. I thought that this was a clever touch because often the title of a novel is seemingly irrelevant, detached to the actual content of the novel that follows. On the other hand, there was one major fault; eventually, the chapter names became increasingly similar, to the point of sharing the same meaning with previous titles i.e ‘Lie no. 11 If I keep pretending everything will be alright’ and ‘Lie no. 15 Pretending will make this go away’ or “lie no. 17 I give up” compared with “Lie no.19 There’s no use fighting”. I understand that at one point there will only be a limited amount of options, but I doubt that it is not so limited that there is a lack of variation in this when performing this smart idea.

The themes in this novel are obviously racial tension and violence, (as there are several aggressive episodes in towns and public places throughout the novel where the black and white students are locked in confrontation), and then, there is LGBT+, as Sarah finds herself falling in love with Linda. Truth be told, I was disappointed with this aspect of the novel; admitted, there were instances when thoughts were uncovered showing that they both had feelings for each other, but there were only a few romantic moments, and most of the romance was lost in the  violence towards the end, or two characters lamenting about how sinful and evil they both apparently felt they were. I wasn’t convinced in the end that they were going to become an interracial lesbian couple because there were only a few instances where they honestly faced their feelings.

This novel is great if you have an interest in civil rights, or historical YA fiction. This topical novel is definitely one to watch, and overall is a great debut! Also, please note that this appeared first on the Guardian’s site. So have you read this novel? What did you think of it?

 

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