Although I’m trying to catch up on a backlog of NetGalley reviews (only half of them here; there are a few others that I’m just reviewing on Goodreads), I’ve also been reading a lot of library books lately. One of them I picked up because it fulfilled my ‘brightly coloured’ requirement was Lies We Tell Ourselves by Robin Talley.
I’d heard of this book and I follow the author on Twitter, but I didn’t really know anything about it before reading the blurb. Essentially, it’s a civil rights story, about a black girl going to a previously all-white secondary school, but it’s also an LGBTQ story, because she falls for a white girl, whose father is a segregationist and kind of a jerk, generally.
It’s quite an unusual book in some ways, because most historical ‘issue’ books of this sort would either focus on the race element or on the LGBTQ element, whereas this addresses both. That said, I would argue that it’s a lot more about race, and that’s the struggle that the protagonist is consciously dealing with. Because it’s the fifties, she’s not been exposed to ideas about homosexuality, and she doesn’t have words to describe how she feels, so she spends most of her time trying to ignore the fact that she likes girls rather than actively overcoming prejudice about it, unlike her battle for civil rights.
This made it different from a lot of LGBTQ YA novels, particularly those that deal with an instance of first love, because it isn’t about coming out but, although the character is closeted, it manages to have a happy ending — a welcome surprise, I have to say, since that’s rare enough in contemporary LGBTQ books, let alone historical ones.
I didn’t entirely click with the writing style, but I think that was just an instance of personal taste rather than there being anything wrong with it. It was quite detailed, and at times I was impatient to get on with the story. It would probably be a little bit triggering for anybody who has faced racial abuse, due to period-appropriate insults (you know the ones I mean), but that’s to be expected from a civil rights era book.
I studied this period of American history in school — it’s actually the only American history I’ve ever studied, as a Brit — so I wasn’t as lost as I might have been. I think I’d have found it a little bit more difficult to engage with if I didn’t know anything about the period, since it’s not my culture or background, but I imagine there are very few readers who haven’t at least read or heard a little about 50s/60s America. I mean, most people have at least seen Hairspray, right? And obviously for American readers it’s a recent and relevant period of history that’s probably been covered extensively in school.
As for the romance, I thought it was okay. I liked how Linda, the white girl, became less of a bigot and faced up to her own prejudices as she became closer to Sarah, although she was a long way from perfect and maybe there should have been more acknowledgement that she still had a way to go? Sarah does mention that briefly, though. The story’s told through alternating narration, which is pretty effective in showing how they gradually go from hating each other to having feelings for each other, which is nice.
I think if it had been a straight romance, the circumstances would have annoyed me because of the power imbalance, but in a 50s setting I think there’s a big difference between two girls and a guy and a girl, especially if the guy is the one who’s white in an interracial relationship — there would be too much of a division, maybe? Whereas here, they’re a bit closer together, even if Linda is still very privileged. So that made it seem a bit healthier.
Though to be honest, the romance was only in its early stages at the end of the book, so it’s not like we’re talking about a full-blown relationship here. I mean, it’s the fifties and they’re teenagers and being an interracial couple would be hard enough without being gay as well.
Anyway, I enjoyed the book, although the writing style didn’t blow me away, and found it an unusual but interesting example of LGBTQ YA.