on September 30, 2014
Genres: historical, realistic fiction
Pages: 384 pages
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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 honors 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.
Hey hey, guess what I just read? Lies We Tell Ourselves! A really great book that came out last year that I should have read immediately upon its release! Why? Because it’s an interracial lesbian romance set in the South during the desegregation of Virginia’s public school system. (You had me at lesbian romance.)
Anyway, while it is not without its problems, Robin Talley’s Lies We Tell Ourselves is a really strong debut novel. I read it in one sitting, and it is a testament to the book’s excellence that I really enjoyed it despite having to endure a massive airport delay. (I wasn’t even bothered! I just wanted to sit down again so I could keep. reading. the book.) I wanted to review it because (1) if you haven’t read it, you should read it and (2) man, I have all the feelings about this one, and I want to discuss it with you all.
Here’s the premise: Lies We Tell Ourselves unfolds through alternating narratives – the voices of Sarah Dunbar, who is one of the first black students to integrate her new high school, and Linda Hairston, a white student who is super opposed to integration. (Each new chapter begins with a lie, like “I’m not strong enough for this,” “Adults always know what’s best,” and “She’s wrong,” and this switches to truths by the novel’s end. I thought this was a neat choice to make – so … now you know, too.) Sarah’s experiences in her new school are pretty horrific to read about, as she encounters extreme physical violence, sexual harassment, and structural racism. For purposes of comparison, Linda, on the other hand, is worried that her senior year will be ruined. The two are forced to engage when they have to work together on a group project; for Sarah, the relationship becomes a space where she can argue (in ways that it isn’ t safe for her to do in school), while Linda sees the relationship as an opportunity to show Sarah how wrong she is. Meanwhile, they fall in love, which is hugely scary and threatening to both of them.
The strongest part of Lies We Tell Ourselves for me was the writing. It’s a really, really good debut, you all. It’s not an easy read by any means, but I think it’s a well-written and important one. In addition to that, the main threads of the novel – the storyline about desegregation and Sarah and Linda’s discovery of their same-sex desires – worked well for me as a reader. Talley does a good job of giving Sarah and Linda strong and distinct voices, and I really liked reading about their relationships with their respective families and communities (I loved Sarah’s relationship with her family, and thought Linda’s friendship was Judy was interesting – I could have used more background and further story on both counts!). I also like that the novel is rooted in an intersectional analysis of oppression – that is to say, what it means for Sarah to experience the world as a young woman who is both black and in love with another young woman. All of this stuff? Really well done.
What I was less enthusiastic about was, unfortunately, the romance. I liked the inclusion of Sarah and Linda’s queerness in the context of desegregation and the Civil Rights Movement, and think it’s an important topic for historical fiction to cover, but I thought their actual romantic relationship was kind of upsetting. (I know lots of folks really liked this, and know I might be in the minority here.) It’s basically this: Linda doesn’t change enough as a character to be a good partner to Sarah, I think. Spoilery spoilers under the cut. View Spoiler » Linda’s political positions do change from the beginning of the novel to the end. But they don’t change enough for me to really feel like this is much of a romance. Linda begins the novel writing editorials against integration for the school newspaper – about the importance of faith, heritage, and tradition. She ends the novel writing an editorial for the school newspaper that is, mind you, still against integration for the same reasons, but also calls her white classmates out for their brutal beating of a young black classmate. She starts the novel not believing that black people are fully human. By the end of the novel, she (1) does something that causes the brutal beating of said classmate (because he praises Sarah at Linda’s expense in front of Linda’s dad, which is a screwy motive for someone who is supposedly in love with Sarah) and (2) still thinks that black people and white people are fundamentally different but that Sarah is an *exception.* And … this is where we’re left when the novel ends: Linda tells Sarah, “Of course I think you should, but you’re different. You’re Sarah.” And while, as Sarah acknowledges, she might not go on this way forever – and will hopefully change once their relationship progresses and they move to D.C. together – reading their story here as a romance didn’t work for me. « Hide Spoiler
So, has anyone else read this? I realize I might be behind on this one! Even though I’m late to the game, though, I really enjoyed it as historical fiction – just not so much as a romance. And I’m impressed by this as a debut, and looking forward to Talley’s upcoming release this fall!