Book Review: We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

Before I plunge into this absolutely amazing book, two disclosures, one legal, one not. Legal notice: this book was provided to me by the publisher for the purpose of review. Not legal notice: if you have not read this book, stop reading. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Walk away. Click away. I mean it. If there are two things about this book that you should know as someone who hasn’t read it yet, they are: 1. Read it and 2. Read it without knowing anything about it.

Trust me on this one. The publishers, promo team, and everyone working on this book have invested a huge amount of energy in not leaking any details, and this is really the sort of book where you do not want to get spoiled on what happens, because what happens is important. I don’t want to be all dramatic and say that the book is ruined for you if you know what happens or you’re filled in on bits and pieces of the story, but I read this book without knowing anything more than the title and the author’s name, and I’m really happy that I did, because it was an amazing experience. And I think it would have been very different had I been given clues about the narrative before I started. Bad different, I mean.

So. Now that I have given you a chance to navigate away, and I’ve filled up some of the page with text so you don’t accidentally stumble on unwanted information, I’m going to talk about We Were Liars and why it’s an amazing book. In fact, one of the better books I’ve read this year, not just in terms of the story it tells, but also in terms of the narrative structure and the writing style. Yes, this book is that good.

The story: Cady is a wealthy daughter of a wealthy family that spends summers on an exquisite private island off the East Coast with her family, including her cousins, whom she runs thick as thieves with every summer. She’s always known a life of privilege, but this summer, something seems off…and the further she gets into the summer, the more things just don’t make sense. You see, she had an accident two years before, one severe enough to put her in the hospital with a significant head injury, and she hasn’t been back to the island since, and it’s clear that there’s more to the accident than she’s aware of.

Struggling with monstrous headaches, Cady wanders through the island life, trying to reconnect with her cousins, but also trying to reconstruct the story of her accident. Why was she alone on the beach that night? Why does it feel like everyone in the family is hiding something from her? Why are there strange, unspoken tensions running between the members of the family as they tiptoe around her? Why is she being coddled?

The story reads as a thriller, drawing you deeper and deeper in as you become engaged with Cady and you desperately want to know what happened too. And what happened is…well. You didn’t really think I was going to unveil the ending a month before the book comes out, did you?! Oh, I’m sorry, you apparently did. Well, no dice. Let’s just say that at every turn of the story, Cady uncovers something new, and every time she does, the rug gets pulled out from under her just a little bit further.

As a story, We Were Liars is fantastic. But there’s more going on than just the story. The narrative structure is also brilliant, highly suited not just to the thriller format but also to the story of a character dealing with the aftermath of significant brain damage. The thing about brain injuries is that they aren’t neat and tidy. Your brain is a complicated thing. Time skips, jumps around, moves forward and back and twists back around on you. The erratic, stop and start, confused, abstracted narrative style works perfectly here, because it’s a great approximation of being inside the head of someone with a brain injury.

It’s so unbelievably frustrating to know that information is locked away inside your head, but to be aware that you can’t access it. It’s hard to articulate how infuriating this can be to someone who’s never experienced it. It’s not like the tip of the tongue feeling. It’s much, much worse, especially when your own experiences, your own identity, and your own life are what’s hiding from you. Cady is trapped inside her mind, and even though she’s been paraded to doctors and she’s tried scores of treatments (including heavy opiods that’s she’s persecuted for in the book by characters who call her an ‘addict,’ a nice nod to the stigma people with chronic pain experience for taking medications to manage their conditions), she can’t make sense of the bits and pieces of her memory that won’t fit together in a logical way, and randomly burst out when she doesn’t expect it.

This is a story about recovery. I’ve seen complaints about the narrative structure and how choppy it is, and I respect that opinion, but I would argue that it fits very well with the story and the protagonist. The book is as choppy as Cady’s existence and emotions, and while it can be rough reading, it’s also an honest, fair, and unflinching portrait. Which makes it all the more engaging for me as a reader, because I really do feel like I’m inside Cady’s brain. This carries over through the writing style, which is erratic, piecemeal, at some points achingly beautiful and at others staccato and confused.

This isn’t a sign of poor editing or bad writing: this is a sign of brilliant writing and editing, of using language as a vehicle for storytelling and creating a very visual, fully realised world within the pages of a text. We Were Liars is a story that has many truths, and you’re going to need to read it a few times to find all of them.