A young woman journeys across deserts to find her identity.
Carnegie Medal shortlist 2016 – Review 7 of 8
Shelby Cooper is a seventeen-year-old who has been homeschooled for most of her life in Arizona. She lives a life of sheltered routine, presided over by her protective mother, until one day she is struck by a car as she waits on the footpath outside her local library. From this point on, things begin to get strange. A coyote appears and speaks to Shelby while she is lying half-conscious waiting for the ambulance, and a little later she finds out she is not who she thinks she is and neither is her mother.
The book is a good read. Any experienced reader won’t doubt from the start that Shelby’s formulaic life will quickly give way to something more action-packed, and Lake delivers intriguing scenes interspersed with action as well as a few more surprises. The plot is quite sensational, but remains just on the cusp of believability.
The story is told from Shelby’s point of view, in something I’m going to call teen-speak because I think that’s its intention: lots of likes and you knows, as if Shelby is talking directly to the reader. As if she is writing her speech to the reader, actually, as an interesting use of parentheses displays later on in the book. Shelby is likeable but taciturn for reasons that become obvious, and though her quiet nature is justified, she feels a little two-dimensional at times. Shelby’s mother is mainly driven by her love for Shelby, which has become all consuming and by the end of the book almost fatal. Though her devotion can be moving, it can also be a bit trite.
Woven into the real-life narrative is a series of dreamlike episodes set in a space appropriately called The Dreaming. Here, Shelby encounters Matt, the assistant from the library, and discovers that he not only is he a shapeshifter and the coyote who spoke to her just after her accident, but he is actually Coyote with a capital C, one of the original spirits of the world and a trickster god.
The Dreaming is a the original world, and Shelby is conscripted to save it as the foundations of everything she has ever known. Why Shelby specifically is never made quite clear. But the imagery here is pleasingly natural and fluid, informed by Native American lore: a dying twilight world ruled over by a malicious force called the Crone. Coyote and the Crone are two players in a never-ending struggle as the Crone seeks to dominate the world through the Dreaming, while Coyote’s raison d’être is to sow discord, discord that challenges life and makes it stronger.
As you might expect, Shelby’s issues with her mother in real life and the end-of-world Dreaming episodes gradually converge. Some parts are not so subtle – you work out pretty quickly that the crying child in the Dreaming symbolises Shelby’s lost inner self and the Crone her mother – but the parts that mirror that maternal relationship in the real world, the play between Shelby and the crone and Shelby and her mother, are a powerful metaphor for the trickeries of human relationships and an examination of how and who we choose to love, and why. This part was interesting.
But what really stuck with me about Nick Lake’s book was that despite being a good read it wasn’t very memorable or groundbreaking. The plot has its moments of originality, action, and intrigue and the characters fill out quite nicely, but my thoughts while reading There Will Be Lies turned to the point of the story and how a young adult reader might experience the book and what they would take away from it.
As the Carnegie Medal winner has already been announced, a comparison with Sarah Crossan’s One might be appropriate. One challenged the reader to consider concepts as wide and weighty as individuality and identity by jarring the generally accepted idea that humans have one mind in one body and that this symbiosis is a necessary part of being alive, having a consciousness, and forming a cohesive identity. There is currently no public debate* that a young adult might come across that challenges this mind-body model the way Crossan’s novel does. If we did encounter a story of conjoined twins, a documentary or an article, would we even entertain the dissonant metaphysical ideas that underpin One? Unlikely. And so to present this challenging question to young adult readers is a valuable thing and surely a large part of the reason One was awarded the Carnegie Medal earlier this month.
By comparison, There Will Be Lies was just a nice story.
*that I’m aware of, though I’m sure long tracts have been written on this by specialised philosophers.