"One of Us is Lying" by Karen M. McManus
As One of Us is Lying opens, five distinctly different students all receive a detention with the same cell-phone-hating teacher.
Lamenting the unfairness of the detention, but feeling impotent to do anything about it, they all begrudgingly pile into his room.
They’re a hodge-podge group, really.
The gossip king.
Does this premise sound vaguely familiar?
If you’re a child of the 80s, I’m sure it does.
But there is a distinct difference between the way in which this detention comes to a close and what happened at the conclusion of the Saturday school featured in The Breakfast Club.
Instead of a John-Hughesian ending you might expect, in which the five leave, maybe not friends, but at least with a new understanding of who each member of the group is, this detention ends when one of the five dies.
Like, legit…dies. As in pushing-up-daisies.
Obviously, when five kids walk in to a detention and only four walk out, the four left standing suddenly look pretty fucking suspicious.
Add to this the fact that the boy who died ran a much-loathed blog on which he outed members of the school community, unearthing secrets they wish would stay buried, and you’ve got a really guilty looking quartet of students.
Throughout the entire rest of the book, McManus dissects these remaining students, who soon become known as The Bayview four. As she does, she reveals to readers that, honestly, it’s not one of them who’s lying – it’s all of them.
They’ve all got proverbial skeletons in their closets – things they’ve fought to keep hidden – but would any of them kill to keep these secrets from coming out?
This is the question that occupied my mind as I moved through McManus’s debut novel, which was long in YA terms – 361 pages, to be exact.
Despite its potential-intimidating-to-teens length, the novel felt short. Every scene it contained was necessary either to move the plot forward or to add depth to the characters.
Given that there were, essentially, four main characters, they each had a surprising depth. As I read on, it became clear that this book – which was pretty much pitched a YA suspense novel was really a character study in disguise.
And I fucking love character studies. #NerdiestSentenceEver?
The story is told through alternating perspectives, giving readers the opportunity to walk in the shoes of each surviving participant in that fateful detention.
Which brings me to my first of only two real critiques of this novel.
While I am, in general, a fan of alternating perspectives – and I think this was, by far, the best way to weave together the threads of this complex tale – the execution of this technique wasn’t the best I’ve ever seen.
Relatively frequently, I would find myself reading along and have to pause and look back at the start of the section to see whose perspective that chunk of text was written from. If the distinction between the characters’ voices had been more pronounced, I wouldn’t have had to do this – which suggests to me that they all kinda sounded the same.
That critique aside, I did think that McManus was surprisingly successful in building a large cast of characters that interacted with each other in a realistic way. As I plowed through the novel (in literally one sitting) I started to care about a number of the characters. And, as the book drew to a close, I developed a sincere and serious hope that the characters I felt closest to wouldn’t turn out to be guilty of murder.
It was through the development of these robust characters that McManus managed to impart some meaningful life lessons.
One of my favorite things about YA is that novels written for teens so often contain strong life lessons.
This book was no exception.
It acted as a vehicle for commentary on a host of teen issues, from bullying to abusive relationships to addiction to parental neglect.
For some reason, authors of adult books so seldom fill their novels with lessons. Not sure why. Maybe they think we have it all figured out.
As much as I had enjoyed this book and appreciated its rich characters and even richer lessons, I must say that the conclusion was a bit of a letdown (I mean, not as much of a letdown as the conclusion of that detention was for the kid who died, but still).
In fairness, ending a book is really fucking hard.
That said, this ending was…well…meh.
First, it ended with an epilogue. And epilogues almost universally suck (with the exception of Watch Me Disappear, which had, by far, the best epilogue in literature – probably ever).
Second, what happened at the end… well…let me just put it this way. What happened was what I would have wanted to happen, but not what I believe would have actually happened.
Despite the fact that this plot pretty much limped into the final pages, as I closed the back cover of the novel with a satisfied sigh and rubbed my tired eyes, I found myself grateful that the novel had, ultimately, lived up to the potential I felt like it had when I read the dust jacket cover.
This debut novel receives a fervent 4 out of 5 cocktails.
Have you ever served a detention? If so, did you learn anything from it? I had a lunch detention… once… which I didn’t deserve #StillNotOverItMrWestall. I must admit, though, that I always wondered if a Saturday school session would be as thrilling as depicted in pop culture. Tell me about your run-in with the school law in the comments, below.
Finished this book… which means time for another. Check out what I’m reading, here.