Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley
Publisher: MIRA Ink (Harper Collins)
Release Date: 3rd October 2014
Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
It’s 1959. The battle for civil rights is raging. And it’s Sarah Dunbar’s first day of school, as one of the first black students at the previously all-white Jefferson High. No one wants Sarah there. Not the Governor. Not the teachers. And certainly not the students – especially Linda Hairston, daughter of the town’s most ardent segregationist. Sarah and Linda have every reason to despise each other. But as a school project forces them to spend time together, the less their differences seem to matter. And Sarah and Linda start to feel something they’ve never felt before. Something they’re both determined ignore. Because it’s one thing to be frightened by the world around you – and another thing altogether when you’re terrified of what you feel inside.
This was a damn hard book to read, and only because of how raw and real it is. Robin Talley has let nothing slip beneath us, and while I’m not a historian or even a history student, I can see the research done to write something so strong with a powerful message.
But at the same time, I want to talk a bit about authors and representation. It’s important to have stories such as these ones; where the struggles of POC throughout history aim to inform, teach and hold nothing back. The thing is, a lot of these stories get put in the slush piles and a lot of the authors who write these kinds of stories are POC. Considering Robin Talley is a white woman who managed to publish this novel while #ownvoices POC authors get rejected to me is not so great on the publishers part. It’s how problematic, unrealistic, and downright un-researched novels get published. I have a great problem with white authors writing POC struggle; there’s a difference between writing diversely and downright getting your novel about black people published over an actual black author.
I’ve read and been apart of many conversations about the context of these situations and how POC authors should be able to accurately portray POC stories in publishing without white authors using status or straight up privilege to write that story ‘for them’ (ick). Thankfully, I don’t think that’s the case here, and from Robin Talley’s author notes, she has taken care in portraying these characters and their lives as accurately and as considerately as possible.
So while the novel was heartbreaking and shocking (but not surprising), I loved Sarah and her sister’s perseverance and strength throughout dealing with this nastiness. I’d hate to say that society has not progressed in any way but sometimes it certainly feels that way, hence why Black Lives Matter exists. Racism hasn’t disappeared; it’s shifted, it’s changed shape to become sneakier, casual, swept under the rug rather than segregated schools and buses. But Linda’s father’s newspaper reminded me of newspapers and journalists today and the ‘facts’ that Linda spouted are definitely still things that some believe.
Speaking of the LGBT part of this story; while I’m a massive fan of the inclusion of LGBT characters and stories about LGBT topics in general, I was rather disappointed with this one. It felt rushed and shoved in as an after thought. The horribleness that was happening overpowered any LGBT plot that was trying to happen, and it was obvious that it was only the beginnings of something that neither of them understood, especially with prejudice and religion shoved in between them. But a part of me felt that this story could’ve carried on successfully without a romance plot, especially one that wasn’t going to be explored properly throughout most of the book. But then again, it was an interesting aspect to see a dialogue be opened about this, especially in this setting.
I’ve given Lies We Tell Ourselves five stars because of how chilling and frightening it was, how real and raw, but how full of life Sarah still was. I had to keep reading to find that happy ending and to see these characters not be down-trodden by the horrible society they lived in, but I’ll leave it at that without spoiling.
Trigger warnings for this book: A boat load of racists insults, liberal use of the N-Word, racial assault and minor sexual assault.