We Were Liars by E. Lockhart (Emily Jenkins) is told through Cadence Sinclair Eastman’s point of view as she tries to piece together the events leading up to a traumatic injury she suffered one summer at her grandfather’s private island. The injury causes her to have selective amnesia. From the beginning, it is established that this is a novel about families. The dysfunctional, messed up, yet extremely rich and upper class kind with one power tripping grandfather as their head. On his private island, he builds a house for each of his daughters, and this is where the family collectively spend summers together. Cadence becomes closely knit with her cousins, who are also her age, and comes to call their group the Liars. This stems from the theme of pretence, as the children are all asked by their mothers to become their grandfather’s favourite grandchild as a means of inheriting the family money.
The novel centres strongly around the themes of pretence and outer image, putting on a strong front that hides any problems or pains such as divorce or death. The family pride themselves on being The Sinclairs, and having children that look like Sinclairs, with strong chins, perfect smiles and blond hair. So it is no wonder that Cadence finds herself unable to remember the events that occurred on ‘summer fifteen’ which left her with crippling migraine episodes, memory loss and never-ending MRI and CT-scans.
The novel begins with ease, underlined by family tensions. There is a hint towards an ‘unrequited love’ ending as she falls for the unconventional Gat, her aunt’s boyfriend’s nephew and her cousin Johnny’s friend, who comes to spend summers at the island also. Gat describes himself as ‘Heathcliff’ at one point in the novel; the outsider who will never have her grandfather’s approval. Yet the story quickly spirals deeper, taking on a foreboding and omniscient tone. The ending for me, was pretty unexpected and daring from a writing point of view!
As a narrator, Cadence is quirky, easy to like, romantic and witty. She has a clever and neat way of phrasing her views that make you smile as a reader. For example:
“For the old people in my family – Mummy, the aunties, Grandad – the accumulation of beautiful objects is a life goal. Whoever dies with the most stuff wins.”
Yet she also has a knack for using literal and hyperbolic metaphors to express her feelings:
“Then he pulled out a gun and shot me in the chest. I was standing on the lawn and I fell. The bullet hole opened wide and my heart rolled out of my rib cage and down into a flower bed.”
Normally, these type of metaphors are too cliché for me, but E. Lockhart uses them sparingly and at the right moments. There’s also something about Cady’s voice that is so authentic of a teen’s that it works. The writing style is jagged and slightly disordered, to reflect the broken family theme of the story. The map of the island at the beginning made me expect a very contained, high brow narrative voice yet it is anything but. I actually swept through some comments about the book on Goodreads and found a lot of people unhappy with the writing style and line arrangement such as this:
I remember this now,
in a rush that hits me so hard I fall,
and I plunge down,
down to rocky rocky bottom, and
I can see the base of Beechwood Island
It almost feels like prose poetry and is used to describe Cadence’s toppling feelings on the page. Again, this is used sparingly! There’s also swearing, wit and mini chapters. Personally, it reminded me of how Ali Smith writes in How To Be Both (which is also fantastic), and well, generally. I found it refreshing, quite contemporary and on some levels, relatable and managed to read it in 24 hours! (Maybe 28 but you get the idea..)
It has made me want to read more young adult books that are equally traumatising, and bridge the gap between being a teenager and adult, moving away from the typical teenage angst that put me off them in the first place. The last time I read young adult fiction was probably when I was a young adult myself, which, well, hasn’t been for quite some years now. It also had something to do with going to university to study a literature degree and bridging off to explore other genres that I never even knew existed! We Were Liars actually made me want to do more research into the genre as it is now. That, and following Hot Key Books on Twitter (@) where I learnt about the book in the first place. And I’m darn glad I did.