Culture Writer Isabelle Porter review the BookTok sensation We Were Liars, praising its writing style and allegorical storytelling
We Were Liars, E. Lockhart’s 2014 young adult novel, truly seems to be the book that comes back tenfold. Seven years after its initial release, the book has garnered a massive fanbase on ‘BookTok,’ the literary side of TikTok. When I first read We Were Liars in the year following its publication, I was in my early teens – a few years younger than the characters in the novel – and captivated by Lockhart’s storytelling. It is a work whose singular poignancy stuck with me throughout my adolescent years and which has remained one of my favourite books.
We Were Liars centres around three generations of the Sinclair family, a wealthy clan who spend their summers on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. The novel is narrated by 17-year-old Cadence Sinclair Eastman, who suffers from amnesia due to a mysterious accident that occurred two summers prior. After spending a summer abroad, Cadence returns to the island and reunites with her cousins, Johnny and Mirren, as well as Gat, Cady’s love interest and the nephew of her aunt’s partner. The four, who are all around the same age, are dubbed ‘the Liars’ by their family, and the plot of the book captures their escapades on the island. The snapshots switch between ‘Summer Fifteen,’ the year of the accident, and ‘Summer Seventeen,’ where the Sinclair family is markedly changed, overwhelmed with secrets and compulsions. Through these glimpses into the past, Cady begins to string together the events that led up to her accident.
The novel is written in E. Lockhart’s signature style of prose, with some sentences broken up in a poetic fashion. This abstract structuring is admittedly not for everyone; however, I find the style to be particularly effective for We Were Liars, as it emphasises the fragmented, fleeting state of Cadence’s memory. At the beginning of the novel, it is established that Cadence has been significantly impacted by the mysterious incident. She is plagued by migraines, a shell of her former self. Her sardonic attitude about her pain and use of strong prescriptions irritates her family members. Lockhart depicts the gruelling effect that the incident has had on Cadence in a highly visceral manner, highlighting the inseparability of her physical and psychological trauma.
I think the most brilliant facet of We Were Liars is E. Lockhart’s use of allegorical storytelling. In the first part of the novel, Cadence begins to randomly give away her belongings to charity shops and people in need, finding no point in keeping even the pillow from her bed or a framed photograph of her late grandmother. One belonging that Cady does hold onto is a book of fairytales given to her by her father, which greatly influences her narrative voice. As she begins to weave together the events leading up to the incident, Cadence tells short fairytales that allude to the events and attitudes of her family members. These hyperbolic stories help both her and readers understand the emotional core of the Sinclair family’s supposed ‘fairytale life’ through satirical allegory.
Lockhart’s display of affluence and familial conflict is particularly admirable in a book marketed towards younger readers. We Were Liars deftly handles topics such as materialism, racism, and mental health, exploring different generations’ opposing outlooks on these topics. Over the course of two hundred fifty pages, Lockhart juxtaposes reality and fairytale to reveal truth and fiction in both.
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