Sunday, January 18, 2009

REVIEW What I Saw and How I Lied DAPHNE LEE

Mother’s adultery?

A teenage girl’s naïveté is broken by the betrayals and greed of adults around her. This award-winning book tells us how to grow up—without growing old and cynical

By Judy Blundell
(Scholastic Press, 284pp)

A scene in What I Saw and How I Lied takes place in a movie cinema. Evie Spooner, the book’s 15-year-old narrator, is there with her stunning mother, Beverley, as well as Peter, the handsome young man from her stepfather’s World War II army unit.

Evie goes to buy candy and when she returns, she finds that Peter has moved up a seat and is now next to her mum. This scene reminds me of a similar one in Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart: the teenage heroine, Portia, is watching a film with the boy she loves and notices that he’s holding another girl’s hand. The feeling of betrayal and embarrassment is intense. Portia’s heart dies in this novel and what she witnesses in the cinema is one of the killer blows.

To me, a 41-year-old, the cinema scene in What I Saw and How I Lied is revealing. I wonder what a teenager, someone more innocent, would make of it. Innocent Evie, who “smokes” chocolate cigarettes and dreams of the day she will wear lipstick and high heels, is in love for the first time. When she sees her mother whispering to Peter, all she notices is the older woman’s sophistication and she longs to also have something to whisper to Peter.

The girl’s naïveté is heartbreaking. It makes the more wily reader want to shake her and shout, “Wake up! Don’t be a fool!” By the end of the novel, Evie will have lost her innocence and felt the bitter sting of betrayal more than once.

But before that ... oh the thrill of first love! Haven’t we all had crushes on “only-in-our-wildest-dreams” men, much too grown-up and glamorous to notice us as anything more than cute kids and naughty little sisters? Evie’s crush is rather different though. He treats her with courtesy and concern. He flirts (subtly), makes her feel older than 15, and gives her hope for a summer romance she can brag to her best friend about.

Evie is on holiday, in Palm Beach, with her mum and stepdad, Joe. Peter shows up at the hotel they’re staying at and Joe isn’t at all pleased. Still, Peter doesn’t stop hanging around. Could it be that he likes Evie as much as she likes him? It’s tempting to think so, and there’s nothing to make Evie suppose otherwise. The reader can’t help expecting and suspecting the worst though. Why is Joe acting so shifty around Peter? Has he something to hide that Peter knows about?

Meanwhile, the Spooners become friendly with the Graysons, a couple who are also guests at the hotel. Mr Grayson and Joe decide to do business together. Grayson will buy the hotel and Joe will run it. However, before the sale can be finalised, it is revealed that the Graysons are Jewish. Palm Beach’s real estate laws prohibit blacks and Jews from owning property. The Graysons leave the hotel, but Mr Grayson tells Joe that they can be partners elsewhere.

Joe is still nervy and bad-tempered. Evie overhears snatches of conversations between him and her mother that she can’t understand. Finally, Peter tells her what happened between him and Joe during the war, whilst they were still in Europe. The significance of his story does not impact Evie until later, when Joe, Beverley and Peter go sailing together and Peter does not return.

It seems that he fell overboard during a storm. His body is found and the coroner’s report says that he drowned. A murder investigation ensues, but what shocks and bothers Evie more than the fact that her parents are suspected of murder, are allegations that Beverley and Peter were in love. It is up to Evie to figure out what the truth is and to decide what to do with what she knows.

The title of the novel is suggestive. It reminds the reader to pay close attention to every thing that is described and recounted, and to doubt everything that is said. What did Evie really see? What lies did she tell? Does she tell the truth at all? It is Evie’s actions at the end of the story that help the reader sort out the truths from the untruths. What Evie saw caused her to lie, but it also revealed the lies told by others. What she discovered made her act dishonestly, but it also helped her to be true to herself and to act with more integrity and fairness towards people around her.

Throughout the book, the reader has a sense of impending doom. The title, Evie’s naïveté, and Joe’s shiftiness combine to unsettle and disturb. Beverley’s beauty and glamour also smack of trouble. She’s not just pretty. With her tumbling blonde curls and dark red (“Fatal Apple—the most tempting color since Eve winked at Adam”) lipstick, Bev has typical femme fatale looks. References to Lana Turner are frequent and would remind some readers of the Johnny Stompanato murder case, which also featured a beautiful blonde, her teenaged daughter and a handsome young man.

Despite the sensational events that Evie finds herself mixed up in, what stands out in this story, is the young girl’s ultimate triumph over the carelessness, thoughtlessness and greed of the adults around her. Teenagers will identify with Evie’s desire to grow up, and will be inspired by how she becomes adult without being corrupted by the ugliness that finally forces her to leave her childhood behind.

What I Saw and How I Lied won the 2008 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature.

Reproduced from The Sunday Star of January 18, 2009


Anonymous Anonymous said...

There're lots of copies of this title at Kinokuniya KLCC!

Friday, January 23, 2009 7:34:00 PM  

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