The Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

What does it feel like to be a teenager in the middle of the US Civil Rights movement?

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Carnegie Medal shortlist 2016 – Review 8 of 8

Finally, my last review of 2016’s Carnegie Medal shortlist!

The last is by no means the least in Robin Talley’s moving story told through the eyes of Sarah Dunbar, a black teenager about to start her first term at a newly-desegregated school in Virginia in the late fifties. The lies of the title refer to the little lies we tell ourselves in order to get through something, saying we’re fine when we’re not, struggling onwards, making do.

As the story develops, the scope is widened from the issue of race to include blossoming teenage sexuality and also extends to the wider picture of developments in the civil rights movement beyond a single school.

The book makes for a difficult read as the reader naturally empathises with the unfairness heaped on Sarah and the other black children. It’s sadly poignant that the subject of racial discrimination remains a key topic today, not only in America but everywhere in the world.

Talley doesn’t shy away from the awful physical abuse that Sarah and her black peers receive from the white students at Jefferson High School, the fear that they live in of being cornered by other students. Neither does Talley neglect the mental abuse and torture faced by the black students: aside from slurs, general denigration, and a lack of support from figures of authority, the students, previously taking advanced subjects, are assigned to  remedial classes at Jefferson, nevermind their previous achievements and potentiallyu affecting their college applications and entire futures. This is paralleled with Sarah’s father’s situation, precariously employed by a white editor, forced to take a role more junior than his experience should demand, and living in fear of being let go for his political associations.

Though the book is written from the perspective of Sarah, a teenager we might typically expect to be more concerned with her own microsphere, Talley manages to break the personal/political divide by making it not just about Sarah’s experiences at school. This is not only thanks to her writing Sarah as a mature and perceptive young woman but also thanks to the overheard discussions between adults, the whispered conversations between Sarah’s parents when they think no one is listening, the Dunbar’s backstory. Most moving of all is Sarah’s understanding and acceptance of the fact that she, her sister Ruth, and the other black children are being used as political currency by their own parents and community in this social experiment. All this serves to break down the divide between Sarah as a normal teenager and Sarah as a young black woman in a society that rejects her. This is an excellent introduction for any young adult to the politicisation of teenagers, of women, of people of colour, of bodies, and of sexuality.

Another point goes to Talley for nuancing the story so that it’s not all about race: it’s also about Sarah’s struggle with her developing sexuality. Talley cleverly weaves the two strands together so that they are inseparable and indeed this intersectional perspective ends up being the solution to the twin challenge in a welcome twist on the classical ending that sees Sarah overcome the difficulties faced at school and graduate from Jefferson, moving on to the next chapter in her life.

I would highly recommend this book to young adult readers: the combination of personal  with the thrust of the political makes for a read that will cause the reader to question their  position within their own social context and history, something they may not have already done or may just be starting to do.

4/5 stars

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