Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

Lies We Tell OurselvesLies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley (Harlequin Teen, 30 September 2014)

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Robin Talley mentions in her author's note at the end that this book was "painful to write". And so it must have been–it was painful to read, too, but in a good way. In an important way.

It is February 1959 in Virginia, and Jefferson High School is being desegregated. Sarah Dunbar, a black girl in her senior year, starts to attend Jefferson, along with nine other students from her black-only school. They're greeted with shouts and spitballs and worse. But Sarah meets a white girl called Linda Hairston, and though Linda opposes integration like the rest, Sarah recognises something in her that seems different, something that seems like potential for change. As they're forced to work together on a school project, they start to get to know each other and realise that maybe some of the things they've believed all their lives aren't so true after all.

Parts of the book were harrowing to read, especially the very beginning, when you're thrown straight into the morning of the first day of integration at Jefferson, as Sarah and the other black students arrive at the school. Immediately they hear horrifying insults screamed at them. I was so terrified throughout the whole book that something awful would happen to one of the black characters, that they would get heavily injured or killed. I'm not going to say whether this does happen in the book, but obviously it's not an unrealistic thing to happen. Even looking at society now, we know it's not unrealistic for innocent black people to be killed for no reason. We know it still happens with terrifying frequency.

So I was scared. The book was so effective in creating that atmosphere of fear. I felt sick and disgusted that people could be so hateful. And I admired the black students so much. For being so incredibly brave and going to this school day after day when this is what they're faced with. Because there's a bigger picture. Because someone has to do this, so that the future can be better for everyone else.

The book alternates between Sarah and Linda's POVs. They're both very brave people in their own ways. Sarah's POV was the one I preferred, because it was definitely harder to deal with all of Linda's confusion about racism and the jumbled thoughts of hate and doubt in her mind, especially at the beginning when she didn't really know any better yet.

Sarah also had more awareness of her own sexuality from the outset, since she already knew that girls made her feel something she thought she shouldn't, even before she met Linda, and this is always interesting for me to read as a queer person, how this part of her identity affects her. I love how Sarah's thoughts about her race interact with her thoughts about her sexuality. There was a really interesting part of the novel, when she thinks about the Bible and how her dad tells her that white people have used it to justify their treatment of black people, and she comes to some realisations about how this relates to what the Bible tells her about homosexuality.

I have to say, I was ridiculously frustrated by Linda's behaviour at many points in the book, but I also know that it's understandable for her to act the way she does. She's been brought up her whole life believing that black people are inferior and that desegregation shouldn't happen. Her father writes for the town paper as one of the most vocal opponents of school integration. Her father is also abusive. The only time he ever really talks to Linda or even notices her is when he's feeding her his vehement opinions about how integration is wrong. She grows up desiring his approval as a child naturally does, and hating him at the same time. Plus, she's a popular girl in a school where she herself would come under fire for showing any sign of friendliness towards a black person. So of course it's understandable that every time Linda seems to take one step closer to being nice to the black characters, she takes two steps back again. But that doesn't make it any less frustrating, and sometimes it's hard for me to read all of her hateful words and actions and understand why the hell Sarah actually likes her.

This diminishes the romance somewhat for me. I mean, yes, Linda does show her own courage and independent thinking, and Sarah is right when she sees that potential for change in her. And rationally I know that Linda has her reasons for behaving the way she does. But still. I get so angry at Linda all the time in this book. Just as Sarah does, really. But it was admittedly fascinating to see them argue and talk to each other and how much they both blazed with life when they were together.

I absolutely adored Ruth, Sarah's little sister and a freshman who attends Jefferson with Sarah. She has a different sort of strength to Sarah, and is much more outspoken and defiant. I loved seeing the ways she encouraged and inspired Sarah in the book. I was so happy to see that she got her very own POV chapter at the end! Which was SO MARVELLOUS. Oh god, I want a whole novel in Ruth's voice. She just has this curiosity and this sharp bite to her voice that was such a delight to read.

I did think the ending was perhaps a little rushed and everything seemed too easy after all the difficulties that came beforehand. There were still some issues that I would've liked to see the author address more fully and give some sort of closure to, particularly about Linda's dad. But other than that, the ending was wonderful and full of hope, and it's a gripping and emotional book that really demonstrates the importance of activism and of personal, individual courage in ordinary lives.

I think it's amazing that Talley wrote this book, about a black girl and a white girl falling in love with each other in 1959 in the South. It was an important story to tell, and Talley told it extraordinarily well. This is definitely a book I'll be trying to make everyone read.

Note: The copy that I read was an advance uncorrected proof.

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16 thoughts on “Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley

  1. Yesss I really liked this book! Even though I thought the ending was slightly unrealistic. But yeah, this was definitely a hard book to read, though I'm pretty sure it was a lot worse for some other schools.

    1. Yeah, I know! When I was reading it I was like, wow, this is absolutely terrifying, and that's even more terrifying because it could be EVEN WORSE and this is actually not that bad and that's pretty awful!

      The ending was a bit unrealistic, yeah. While I was reading the book I kept thinking, I don't know how this could really end all that well... So the ending was surprising. I still have mixed feelings about it really. I think that's why this book is only four stars instead of five.

  2. I've heard of this this book in so many blogs, and I want to read it, but I'm sort of doubtful still because the whole thing sounds a little harsh and sad, especially with the racism and the discrimination. Would you still recommend it, though? By the way, love your review :D I love the way you write too <3

    Jillian @ Jillian's Books

    1. Oh yeah, of course I'd recommend it! I gave it four stars and I say at the end of my review that this is a book I'll be making everyone read, so yes, I definitely want people to read this! I think it's just such an important book and actually, even though it is harsh and sad, because that's obviously the truth and it needs to be told that way and not made light of, it's still a book full of hope and love and occasional moments of humour.

      Thank you for your comment!

  3. Ooh, you posted this review on the same day that my history class began to talk about racism and discrimination in my state's past. And you didn't make me answer ten long questions and only give me thirty minutes to do them, so I prefer this. But wow, I keep connecting what you wrote in the review from the things I read in the history book. Like about Sarah having to face all sorts of abuse when she went to school... I read that for some schools, when the students went to school, it literally took the force of the army to keep the them safe, which I really found horrifying, since I always thought that cruel bullying was the only thing that happened. Not that bullying is good, it's really not, but I learned that black students going to school with white students during that time actually had to fear for their lives and that's just chilling...

    And this seems to be something that the book shows vividly... I do hope that no one gets hurt though ;_; Those kids are admirable and I love them and I haven't even read the book yet. Really, it's just terrifying to think that black students of the past had gotten hurt because prejudice and hatred ran so deep in people. And it is *still* like that today.

    Linda's character... I'm probably going to get frustrated with her a lot, haha. But I do like the idea of having the perspective of a prejudiced person alongside the perspective of the person who is of the group she is prejudiced against. I think it's interesting and would also help bring more understanding to what people like Sarah had to go through. And even though I'll most likely want to flip a table because of Linda's racism, I look forward to seeing her change and grow! As for Sarah, she sounds really amazing and inspiring, and it seems like her voice is going to be a really compelling one. I love it when characters have thoughts like the one you described about the Bible and its racism and homophobia.

    I actually didn't know this book had a black girl and a white girl falling in love with each other until now! I don't think I've ever read that before, not even in a book set in the present. While I don't think I'll really like the idea of Sarah getting together with Linda (I get really nervous whenever one part of a couple is always putting the other down. And angry), I'm glad that this happens in it... Again, I really hope Sarah doesn't get hurt because of this >_<

    Haha, Cynthia seems to always fall in love with supporting characters. Pen was lucky though because she got a novel. Perhaps Robin Talley shall write a book with her -- I don't know, it sounds like she has a sort of voice that deserves an entire novel to herself. If I were Robin Talley, I wouldn't pass up on the opportunity!

    "I did think the ending was perhaps a little rushed and everything seemed too easy after all the difficulties that came beforehand." <--- As someone who is weak for good endings where everything is easy when things were really hard before, I don't see myself complaining about this. I'm probably just going to sigh in relief BECAUSE THINGS ARE OKAY. HURRAH.

    Oh, yeah, have you read Fingersmith by Sarah Waters? I'm reading through it (had to abandon it when school started because stress but I picked it up again) and it's really great. This is my first time reading any real historical LGBT and I'm enjoying it a lot. As always, wonderful review that made me talk a bit too much :P

    1. Ahhhhh, LESLEY, I write these long reviews and I wonder, "Who will even read them?" And then you come along and you write me equally long comments and I'm just like... PERFECT, I AM NOT ALONE.

      Yeah, when I was reading this book, I was reminded of history lessons back when I was 15 when I learnt about this period of American history. Everything seemed so distant in those lessons. Like you learn about black people who get lynched and you feel briefly sad that this happened once upon a time but unfortunately, most of the time, it doesn't make you feel much more than that. Then you read a book like this and you're forced to confront the fact that you're coming from a position of great privilege, that you don't even have to consider how horrifying these things really were for a second. Reading this, you're actually immersed in the fear and the horrors and the cruelty that black people faced, and you know that reading about it doesn't compare in the least to having to experience it yourself. And it makes so much more of a painful impression on you. As it should. We should all think about these things and care about them. It'd be great if it didn't take reading a book like this for us to take notice, but sometimes, I guess the sad truth is that it does, and that's why books like this are so important.

      I would be very interested to hear what you make of Sarah and Linda's romance once you actually read this book! I find myself feeling really conflicted about it, because obviously Linda does change and grow but at the same time I'm just like SARAH WHY. I guess it's hard to completely empathise with her, because it must be amazing at the time to see a white girl like Linda start to change her way of thinking, but for me it's just like, NO LINDA IS TERRIBLE EVEN THOUGH SHE'S STILL MILES BETTER THAN EVERYONE ELSE.

      But yes, the alternating POVs were definitely very interesting! I thought that was a great way to structure the novel.

      Haha, I definitely hope you like the ending then. :D It is quite a relief compared to all the tension in the rest of the book.

      I haven't actually read any of Sarah Waters' books. This is actually something I've been meaning to do for a long time, but... TOO MANY OTHER THINGS, you know how it is. I did once watch the BBC drama adaptation of Tipping the Velvet though, which was absolutely fantastic. But yes. Sarah Waters. I WILL READ HER BOOKS SOMEDAY.

      1. WE ARE NEVER ALONE BECAUSE WE ARE BOTH IN THE CLUB OF BLOGGING TERRIBLENESS.

        It’s the same for me. My history teacher is better than most, as she gets discussion going for important topics like this, but it’s still a very distant thing. I suppose one reason for this is that in textbooks, the people that are talked about don’t really have “faces” to them… Like they are just names on a page, but when you read a book (or watch a movie), it is suddenly different because you see them as an actual people. Though the thing is is that not many people really seek out these novels… But yeah, there is definitely a disconnect when you read history books, mostly because it’s usually just “another thing you have to learn” and there is often not a personal connection to it.

        … Which is why books like these should totally be recommended in class *coughs*

        Oh, and this reminded me of something. So our school had this poetry slam thing, where all students get to read their often terrible poetry. Examples of terrible poetry include: that one guy who wrote about his ex-girlfriend (awkwaaaaard) and that girl who wrote about twerking with Miley Cyrus. But anyways! So, there was this group of black girls who were friends and they all wrote poetry about how they felt like they were put in boxes and stereotyped because of their race, and it was just so powerful. I always “knew” that there was racial stereotyping, but I didn’t truly realize is until then. There were a lot of other great poems too, though I got really sad because some kids wrote about their experiences and not all of them were happy :(

        I totally just went on a tangent, but yeah! This is why books and just pieces of writing are important to me. Otherwise, I would be very ignorant and in the dark about many things.

        My way of thinking would probably be that while Linda is growing as a person, Sarah should find someone who would treat her completely right. Otherwise, she should just stay friends with Linda. But I haven’t read the book, perhaps this thinking will change, though I don’t think it will :P Ah, yes, I do know how it is. Waters books are also pretty long and her writing isn’t very easy to read when one is all frazzled >_<

        Also, random ponderings: I wonder where Linda is on that book cover... I keep automatically thinking that she's the girl with dorky glasses next to Sarah. But gooosh, those people with glasses... Someone save those children. *says this as she wears her own dorky glasses*

        1. ... A girl wrote about twerking with Miley Cyrus? That's... Okay. Interesting. But I mean, I always admire people brave enough to actually perform during poetry slam things??? Like, I'd always secretly want to do it but I'm just too shy and I absolutely would never be able to make myself do it ever. So, even if it's terrible poetry, I'm just like, well at least this person is better than me in that they were actually confident enough to perform. Confidence is an admirable trait! As long as it doesn't turn into arrogance. But yeah, slam poetry is so important and it can be so affecting. It does make you stand up and take notice.

          Well, Lesley, I can't reveal how and to what extent Linda actually changes because that would be spoilers, so maybe when you read the book you will be like AH OKAY I GET IT NOW or maybe you will be like NOPE STILL NOPE.

          Actually, with the book cover, I'm not even sure the circled black girl is meant to be Sarah. She doesn't really fit in with the image of Sarah that I have... Sarah's meant to have ridiculously long hair, I think? And this girl just looks like she has averagely long hair. Oh, and Linda's meant to be a redhead, as far as I can remember... (I just read another book with a redhead main character so I'm wondering if I'm just transferring that to Linda. I HAVE THE WORST MEMORY IN THE WORLD.) So her hair would look lighter than the girl with the dorky glasses. I don't remember if she actually wears glasses, either.

          But what are you talking about Lesley, DORKY GLASSES ARE IN FASHION.

          1. Yeah, it was really quite the poem. Everyone was laughing at it, though that was the intended affect, sooo. It got so weird, though, like there was this battle with Nicki Minaj and it was just one big O_O And yup, that's true! I really don't judge anyone who went up there, because not only does my poetry suck also, but I'm a wimp too.

            I just feel that I have right to tease them because I'm in the same boat (well, uh, under the boat because I'm a wimp who can't show her face).

            I SHOULD QUICKLY GET TO THIS BOOK THEN. I WILL BUY IT WITH MY CHRISTMAS MONEY.

            Hm. So this cover is either just showing a general picture of what happened during that time, or whoever designed the cover did not pay proper attention to character descriptions...

            I THOUGHT THAT CONTACTS WERE IN FASHION? THAT'S ALL THAT PEOPLE ASK ME THESE DAYS. AND I'M JUST LIKE "NOPE. I'M NOT JABBING THOSE THINGS INTO MY EYEBALLS I'LL PROBABLY BLIND MYSELF."

            Some people really do rock the dorky glasses look, though. But you gotta have the right face shape! I think that the more round faces or the really sharp faces wear it better. I'm in the in-between so I'm constantly going from "I look freaking amazing" to "uh... what are good looks?"

            1. I hardly pay attention to character descriptions either so if that's the problem I don't really blame the person...

              I guess contacts were always in fashion because most people think glasses are terrible. I love glasses though?? My boyfriend met some Japanese guys who kept telling him he'd look really handsome if he didn't wear glasses and I was just like NO KEEP THE GLASSES I DIG THEM. So yeah I love glasses. A lot. I think everyone looks cute with glasses on! They just have to have the right glasses for them.

              I really need some new glasses... I haven't bought a new pair in like, 5 years, I swear I can barely see anymore.

              LESLEY I'M SURE YOU ALWAYS LOOK FREAKING AMAZING. I have no idea what you look like but I am 100% sure that is a fact. (All I associate with you are paper bags and pigeons. I really hope you don't actually go around in real life with a paper bag on your head, that would be weird. I also hope you're not a pigeon.)

  4. Cait

    Ahhhh, I DID so like this one too! Although, I'm with you, it made me totally sick and disgusted. Ugh. How can people be so CRUEL?! It's just absolutely shameful. The ending though. *happily ships as they sail into the sunset* It was definitely a beautiful book and I'm glad I read it!! XD
    Thanks for stopping by @ Paper Fury!

  5. Oh, I SO want to read this book! I was offered a review copy, but the publishers wanted it reviewed by a certain date, and I'm currently unable to commit to deadlines, so I couldn't get one :( But I am SO eager to read this book! I think it will be such an interesting book, dealing with racism and homosexuality at such a time... SO EAGER!

    Several weeks back I watched The Butler, and cried at the treatment those people had to go through. It's disgusting! I can imagine The Lies We Tell Ourselves making me react in a similar way, and I think it'll be harder with possible homophobic reactions too.

    One of my cousins is half-Ecudorean, and she's gay, and although it's a different time now (and she's a different race), I think I'll have a personal reaction to this book with thoughts of her - it's not something I'll be able to relate to otherwise being white and straight. Aah, I think it's going to be so hard, but it's a hard I'm looking forward to. I truly believe it's a book I need to read, and other people need to read, too. I'll be getting myself a copy soon.

    Amazing review, Cynthia! :)

    1. Ah, sorry to hear that you couldn't get a review copy! ): I happily won this in a giveaway from Luna Little's Library, along with some We Need Diverse Books stickers and a bookmark, which was pretty awesome!

      Oooh, The Butler! Did you enjoy that film? I hadn't actually heard of it until you mentioned it but it looks very interesting. I don't really keep up with films unless they're animated or about comic superheroes, so...

      I'll definitely do a Keep It Queer post at some point on the intersectionality between being LGBTQ and being non-white, I think. I can only speak for my own experiences on that front, being Chinese and raised in Hong Kong, but I hope I can get other people to comment on it as well and bring their own experiences to the discussion. Actually, Gay YA is doing a #BlackLivesMatter series at the moment and their first post was about queer black women (or the lack thereof) in YA lit: it's a great post, you should check it out if you haven't yet.

      Thank you, Jo! (: I hope you enjoy the book when you get round to it.

      1. I now have a copy! As you saw on Twitter! :) Really looking forward to reading it!

        Oooh, I loved The Butler! I wasn't sure I would, but I really enjoyed it! So eye-opening and thought-provoking! Really, really, good!

        Your upcoming Keep It Queer post sounds really interesting! I'll keep an eye out for it. Yeah, | saw the Gay YA series after you tweeted it. Now following and reading. Really good!

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