Tuesday, 2 February 2010

What I Saw and How I Lied

Noir thriller for teenage girls? Are you sure? Well, yes, actually, and boy, does it work! Recommended by a friend who works in children's books, and whose literary opinions I rate very highly, What I Saw and How I Lied had me from the first scene:

"The match snapped, then sizzled, and I woke up fast. I heard my mother inhale as she took a long pull on a cigarette. Her lips stuck on the filter, so I knew she was still wearing lipstick. She'd been up all night."

Judy Blundell captures the darkness and glamour of post-war America as though she lived there; it is a nuanced piece of writing, wreathed in smoke, cinched at the waist and held tightly in place with a gallon of hairspray. The atmosphere slides off the page and envelops.

Our guide through this alien and superficially enchanting world is a girl on the brink of womanhood, and in that sense is nothing new for Young Adult fiction. What sets Evie apart is her wiseness. And it's not an omnipotent wiseness, common in children at the helm of a raft of recent adult fiction (Jonathan Safran Foer's Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example), but the honest wiseness that follows curiosity, desire and a succession of mistakes; the wiseness of a young woman who watches, who understands certain things but not others, and who, above all else, wants to know. She is a beguiling heroine.

And so, femme fatale aside, what of this noir plot? Well, it reveals some unpleasant truths about post-war society, it ticks all the pulp boxes - murder, deceit, money, sex - and it takes some unexpected twists. Characters are altered by events - we, like Evie, do not know who we can trust, and our mind is changed regularly; no-one is whiter than white, all are sullied in some way, are morally shady. And when, towards the end, Evie herself ceases merely spectating and steps into the limelight, and we learn, finally, not why she lies but how she lies - such a clever title - that morally shady area becomes for a time, the heart of the novel.

Although a teen novel, What I Saw and How I Lied is not noticeably written for the young. It is perhaps a little heavy handed in terms of imagery occasionally, but then, few fourteen year olds these days are familiar with Bette Davis, Joan Crawford or Humphrey Bogart. And for my money, this is an era that can comfortably handle being a little over the top; blood-red lipstick has never been known for its subtlety.

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