As a reader of and advocate for contemporary literature, it always excites me when a topic comes up that I haven’t read before. Caroline Bock’s debut Lie tackles a hate crime, which was something I haven’t read before and which excited me to read. More than that though, this book handles the topic in a unique matter, giving perspectives from more than one narrator and delving into issues of not only race, but also of class and status.
Skylar’s boyfriend Jimmy’s been accused of brutally attacking two Latino immigrants in a neighboring town. Skyler’s being asked about it because she was the only witness there that night, but she has kept a vow of silence about everything she’s seen. She wants to protect Jimmy, but the more she thinks about the crime and the more she delves into the greater meaning of everything, the more she wonders if keeping her silence is the best thing she should be doing. It’s not just Skylar at the helm of the story, though. Jimmy’s best friend Sean is also debating whether or not he played a role in the assault and whether or not he needs to face the music himself.
Lie is a slower paced book, and it’s one that requires paying a lot of attention. That’s not to say it’s a bad thing, but rather, this isn’t a book you will breeze through. When I started the book, I expected it to be a bit of a louder read because the topic at hand seemed like it would call for that. I was pleasantly surprised it wasn’t because it forced me to listen to what all of the different characters were telling me. In listening, I, too, was forced to think about the moral issues the characters debated.
This is a book that tackles multiple points of view, and I believe Bock does a pretty good job nailing them all. We’re given the perspective of Skylar and what she’s going through as a witness to a crime. We believe in her mental anguish, and we want her to do the right thing. Sean’s voice is given to us next, and all we know is that he’s sitting in jail for the crime. He makes bail eventually, and this is one of those details I drop in the review because it does play a larger role in one of the secondary story lines. Then we hear from Lisa Marie, who is Skylar’s best friend and one of those people in her life who helps her realize she plays her own part in the crime and she needs to do something about it. We also get the chance to meet Skylar’s father, who is an EMT. Of all the characters in the book, he has the most distinct voice, and it’s one that begins in denial. He’s convinced his daughter knows nothing and while he feels bad for the kids who were beat, he also thinks it’s ridiculous his daughter is being punished for it.
Continuing the story are the principal at the high school that Skylar, Jimmy, and Sean attend. Her role is much less about telling the story than it is about setting the backdrop for where and what these come from. I liked this about her character, and I appreciated that she isn’t introduced to readers immediately. Her first appearance is about 1/3 of the way through the book, which gives readers enough time to meet the main players in the story and build confidence or disbelief in who they are before getting further back story. Along with the principal, we meet coach Martinez, who oversaw both Jimmy and Sean on the ball field. He, like the principal, plays less a role in the story as a character and more as a voice to offer back story and development for Jimmy and Sean.
Finally, two characters who also chime into the story are probably the ones that spoke to me the most and really made the story flourish: Gloria Cortez, the mother of the two boys who were brutally attacked, and Carlos Cortez, the boy who was attacked and didn’t require lengthy hospitalization. With Gloria, we learn why and how her sons Carlos and Arturo made it to America and why she wanted them to be here. When she learns of the attack, she makes arrangements to get back and pray Arturo, who was still quite injured in the hospital, back to health.
It sounds like a lot of characters and a lot to keep track of, but in all honesty, it’s well done. I believed every voice, and I felt like each of them contributed something greater to the plot than any one character telling the story alone could. Moreover, I thought it did a lot of favors that the description of the book didn’t. The book depicts Skylar as a devoted girlfriend to Jimmy because he saved her. I’m not sure what that even means, and while reading, I kind of anticipated some sort of romantic subplot that would detract from the greater importance of the story. However, the romance here is really not a big part of the story, and never once did I get the feeling from Skylar that she was a love drunk girl who needed to be rescued by a boy. Instead, I bought a girl who was terrified to turn in someone she cared about, and she would have been in that position no matter who the person she was with was. Although information dumps in stories can be tiresome, Bock does a great job of using her characters to do the information dropping in a way that’s not simply convenient nor flat. I get a full sense of who both the principal and the coach are, even if their roles are smaller than many of the other characters.
One of the things that really worked for me in this book was the setting. It takes place on Long Island, and the characters really feel authentic to the place. They’re from a variety of backgrounds and statuses, and that’s sort of the key. These characters range from middle class (which is something that the principal talks about) to lower class and immigrant. The disparity is palpable, and it creates tension in the story that amplifies the severity of the hate crime that happened. Readers are put into the same position as Skylar, as we do develop a sympathy for both the victims and the perpetrators of the crime. We know what’s right and wrong, and we have our expectations and beliefs validated when Gloria and Carlos have their chance to talk in the story, but we still have a sense of understanding to Jimmy and Sean. For me, the story was less about the hate crime and more about the realities and hardships faced by different classes and social statuses.
This was far from a perfect book, as it did take quite a while for the storyline to pick up. There are a few big reveals that don’t come until 2/3 of the way through the book, and given the slower pacing of the story, it felt like a long time to wait. I also never bought the depth and devotion in the romantic sense between Skylar and Jimmy, and it’s really unfortunate that that plays such a big part in the book’s description. It doesn’t need to. The story is about whether to tell the truth or to lie, and it’s about the millions of things in one’s life that makes doing something that seems so simple so challenging.
Lie would make for a fantastic book discussion book, as I think that it’s relatable and understandable to readers on many levels. This is the kind of book you give to those who like their stories with depth and with slower pacing. Bock’s book strikes me as the kind of story with potential to be considered for awards as well because it is genuine and it is well-written. It doesn’t fall into a lot of the traps books like this can that tackle a serious issue and do so with more than one voice. It’s also a shorter book, clocking in at 224 pages; the story is tightly edited and after reading a ton of books that went on just a little too long, I appreciated this. It’s also a paperback release, for those of you who purchase with a tight budget.
If I may, one of the things I think I like a lot more about this book than I should is the title. Lie sounds simple, but in the context of the book, it holds a lot more meaning. I think it’s probably one of the smartest titles in a while.
Review copy picked up at ALA. Lie will be available August 30.
Kelly Jensen is a former librarian turned editor for Book Riot. She's the author of IT HAPPENS: A Guide to Contemporary Realistic Fiction for the YA Reader and the forthcoming Feminism For The Real World (Algonquin Young Readers, Spring 2017).