In 1959 Virginia, the lives of two girls on opposite sides of the battle for civil rights will be changed forever.
Sarah Dunbar is one of the first black students to attend the previously all-white Jefferson High School. An honours student at her old school, she is put into remedial classes, spit on and tormented daily.
Linda Hairston is the daughter of one of the town’s most vocal opponents of school integration. She has been taught all her life that the races should be kept separate but equal.
Forced to work together on a school project, Sarah and Linda must confront harsh truths about race, power and how they really feel about one another.
Boldly realistic and emotionally compelling, Lies We Tell Ourselves is a brave and stunning novel about finding truth amid the lies, and finding your voice even when others are determined to silence it.
This is such a tricky little book to review. It was an interesting insight into a dark part of American history, with good writing and focus on an interracial LGBT+ couple, which is awesome. As a complete piece of work, I think there were problematic elements and a sense that something was missing.
The Lies We Tell Ourselves plays out over the course of a school year in 1950’s West Virginia. It follows Sarah and Linda as the first black students integrate into the previously all-white Jefferson High. Sarah is one of the trail blazing black students and Linda is a popular senior and daughter of the town’s most enthusiastic segregationist. The plot follows the girls as they struggle to adapt to both the changes in their education and their lives.
The first portion of the book is dedicated to telling the reader about those tumultuous early days and Talley writes about the horrendous emotional and physical abuse that the black students suffer in unflinching prose. Despite overall strong writing, the pages are full of the N-word. I understand what Talley is trying to achieve with this, but I’m of the opinion that you can write powerfully about racism without resorting to using that particular word more than five times on one page.
This is an ‘issues’ driven book and the author does a reasonable job of unpicking some complicated issues relating to racism and sexuality, as well as portraying what it would have been like for teen girls in 1950’s America in a realistic way. The hugest of high fives have to go to Talley for including an interracial lesbian romance in her book when it almost certainly would have been easier for her to include an interracial heterosexual couple within the plot. I think young adult books are still crying out for inter-sectional LGBT+ characters and The Lies We Tell Ourselves deserves a big pat on the back for this.
The former part of the book reads a little bit like a memoir and the writing was vivid and emotional. However, as the story progresses and the romance is introduced, it all starts to come a little bit undone. Although I was super happy to come across a lesbian story line in this book, it doesn’t mean that it was believable. The fact remains that Linda is a racist and Talley’s attempts to humanise her behaviour towards the end of the book are too late, despite being quite nicely done. Instead of acknowledging that her behaviour is wrong, Linda chooses to believe that Sarah is just a special black person who is different to all of the other black people.
Hang on. WHAT?!
Linda never quite gets on the ‘racism is wrong and all human beings deserve equal treatment regardless of skin colour’ page, she just bends the rules so she doesn’t feel quite as much guilt for fancying Sarah, which is beyond problematic. In fact, when something that Linda says has serious consequences for one of the black students towards the end of the book, she doesn’t feel any remorse for her actions until she considers how this might change Sarah’s feelings towards her. I cannot come to terms with this as a believable romance and I still can’t find any reason that a character like Sarah would have fallen in love with someone like Linda.
I think the story wanted to say more and be more than the author had the time or space to do, which left me feeling like this book was missing something crucial. Lots of big ideas are toyed with and complex issues are bounded about, but ultimately, The Lies We Tell Ourselves fails to capitalise on the hugeness of the subject matter, coming to easy conclusions and a neatly resolved relationship in the pursuit of a happy ending.
- Author: Robin Talley
- Publication Date: 30th September 2014
- Publisher: Harper Teen
- Pages: 384