The Sinclairs are ‘beautiful, privileged, damaged liars’. In the summertime they live on a private island off the coast of Massachusetts. It is on this island, driven by greed and subverted by secrets, their perfect fairy tale lives collide and spin out into the gothic drama that real fairy tales are wont to do – with consequences no one could possibly have imagined. Caddy, granddaughter of the island’s patriarch, finds her broken life enmeshed with that of the Liars – her two eldest cousins, Mirren and Johnny, and Gat, who she has always loved. Together the four friends, young and galvanised by ideals, conspire to change their world. Then there is an accident.
This is a love story, a thriller, a book that will leave you reeling long after you close its covers. It is a story about fear, treachery, deceit, neediness, desperation and power in the form of three sisters who attempt to use their children to manipulate their wealthy father – and what happens when the eldest children revolt and declare enough. It is the story of a girl whose life fractures, whose heart splinters into shards of disaffection and disengagement in the face of great tragedy.
Lockhart is a master storyteller. Her prose is penetrating and fresh; it’s clever, spare, and poetic, sometimes given over to the feel of a verse novel. Her use of allegory in the various retellings of the fairy tales works exquisitely. Her characters are real and the outworking of their motivations creates entirely believable and substantial subtext.
You won’t want to put this book down once you begin. Discomforting but utterly compelling. An ending you absolutely were not expecting. Once We Were Liars gets into the hands of its YA audience, it will market itself.
Allen & Unwin, 2014
(A version of this review appears in Magpies Vol 29, Issue 3, July 2014)