Book Review by Zinta Aistars
• Reading level: Young Adult
• Hardcover: 320 pages
• Publisher: EgmontUSA, 2009
• Price: $16.99
• ISBN-10: 1606840339
• ISBN-13: 978-1606840337
Tish Cohen’s books may be labeled young adult, but I find her work to be easily sophisticated enough for adult reading—certainly for those of us who are parents and may want to delve deeper into the minds of our youth. Cohen’s understanding of those young minds is uncanny. I’ve been a fan since my introduction to Cohen about a year ago, reading Inside Out Girl, and in fact, was inspired to learn more and so interviewed her as feature author for The Smoking Poet at that time. Reading Little Black Lies, impossible to do slowly, I remember why.
Like that previous novel, this one, too, examines a broken and painfully dysfunctional family from the perspective of a teenager. Little Black Lies is the story of Sara Black in her freshman year at Anton High School, a school for the smart and the privileged. Sara is indeed very smart in terms of school work, but she is anything but privileged. She is able to attend the school mostly because her father is employed as janitor there, although her grades qualify her, too. As is so often true, however, book learning doesn’t equal emotional intelligence or social skills, and Sara maneuvers her way through Anton, slangishly known as “Ant,” by an ever deepening layer of lies. It’s all about acceptance and fitting in. Something any honest teen will tell you: high school is a test of emotional and social intelligence far more than the measure of a sharp mind.
These are not white lies. I love Cohen’s word play here, in title and in calling the school Ant, bringing up an image of insects slavishly following other insects, mindless and obedient to even the most irrational social rules. Sara’s father, to whom on one hand she seems utterly devoted, while on the other hand whom she betrays completely, suffers from OCD, obsessive compulsive disorder. Carrying wounds deep inside him that he has yet to resolve, Sara’s father Charlie tries helplessly to clean away all that is dirt in his life: the betrayal of his wife (Sara’s mother), who had an affair with a high school science teacher and left him and Sara, and other wounds going back to his own youth. The more stressed he becomes, the more he cleans and orders his life, attempting to bring order to chaos. Sara has learned to pick up on the symptoms, and her own attempts at soothing her father back into rational behavior become something of her own dysfunction, turning into almost pathological lying.
Of course, once you tell one lie, the lies multiply like rabbits, and the liar must work ever harder and harder to sustain the masking of truth. Every lie becomes uglier than the one before. Cohen resists any attempt to portray her characters as entirely black or white, but paints them in many shades of gray. Sara has many good attributes, exhibits many moments of goodness, and Cohen shows us the source of Sara’s own wounds. Like every child, she longs for a stable home, loving parents, trustworthy and logical. Like so many children, she does not get that wish. Her mother chose her affair over her daughter, and her father, although truly a good man, has too loose a hold on his own sanity to fully be present for his young daughter. And so we come to understand and sympathize. To a point. As Sara’s lies become ever blacker, there are also moments we lose all sympathy.
No one gets through life without telling some lies, but Sara repeatedly betrays her most faithful and true friend, Mandy, even when her friend is on the brink with her own troubles. Sara denies her father repeatedly, like a young Judas, pretending he is not her father when he smiles at her in school, standing by silently when the “in group” makes fun of him. Her motives are shallow, yet the same for too many teens. She craves acceptance from her peers and popularity with the boys. For this, no lie seems to be too big or too black. It seems she will do anything, anything at all, to keep that in crowd believing that she is a sophisticated and rich young woman whose roots are in London, England, rather than Lundon, Massachusetts. She concocts an elaborate history of fake parents with fake professions, even while her father passes her in the school halls, cleaning, cleaning, cleaning away the dirt that keeps coming back.
The book portrays an accurate portrait of the pressures at that age—pressure to be hyper-sexualized as a female and put out for popularity, not only by the opposite gender but almost especially from one’s own; pressure to be rich with all the superficial attributes and accessories; pressure to be with the “right” friends, the pretty girls who wear high fashion labels and are more about the next party than any deeper value. Sara works hard to belong with her female peers, is much less concerned with the opposite sex in terms of acceptance, until Leo catches her eye. For this crush, she falls even deeper into lies, and becomes willing to risk her life rather than be found out.
A climactic scene unfolds when Charlie, her father, finally breaks down and spins out of control with his OCD. A human being can take only so much stress before the cracks finally begin to show. Sooner or later, one way or another, all lies surface. Sara watches in horror as her father loses it in school, this place that has become her theatre stage, and can’t stop scrubbing invisible water stains from a school sink.
“That’s not it!” I want to shout. He’s not scrubbing to rid the sink of stains. He’s got it in his head that this spot is wicked with danger. It doesn’t matter that his opponent doesn’t exist, it just matters that he feels he has won. That’s the enigma of OCD.
At the doorway, more teachers have gathered and are herding the students down the hall. I slip past them into the laboratory…. The thought of paramedics racing in here and shooting Dad up with tranquilizers like some gorilla that’s escaped from the zoo, only to strap him to a stretcher and whisk him off… is more than I can take… The kids are gone, along with many of the teachers. I pluck the bottle of bleach solution, Charlie’s liquid solace, his pacifier, from the cleaning bucket… Knowing full well it’s like giving the alcoholic a beer, I hand the bleach to my father. “Try this.”
His wild eyes focus on me but he says nothing. Just removes the cap, douses his cloth in fluid, and wipes the sink with it. He stands back and watches the sink go from shiny and silver with wetness, back to mottled and dusty-looking silver. The sound of the microbes screaming, dying, is nearly audible, and right away I see his jaw slacken and relax.
Predictably, Sara gets found out. After her ever more extreme and desperate manipulations, the mask falls and reveals the vulnerable and hurting and deeply insecure girl inside. By the time that it does, some readers may have lost all ability to forgive. Wounded as she herself is, she has left a trail of victims: a good father denied, a loyal friend abandoned in her moment of greatest need, while stooping ever lower to be liked by popular girls who show no redemptive values whatsoever (only their own deeply hidden insecurities).
By end of book, it occurs to me that girls especially are today going to greater and greater lengths to please not boys, but other girls, trying to find love and acceptance that broken families have denied them. Teen females are dressing and behaving in a manner that makes it impossible not to objectify them—and Cohen does a great job of showing us what most parents are probably trying hard not to realize about their own children: our children are growing up in a promiscuous and dangerous world that cannot end well. They are seeking “love” in all the wrong places and from all the wrong people. All of which is a silent scream for help, yet another societal dysfunction, that adults must heed if we are to guide our youth into a healthy adulthood.
Important issues, and Cohen does not shy away from any of them. Like it or not, these are the realities of our contemporary world. Being young has never been more complicated, more obstacle-ridden, more testing, than it is today. And many teens are navigating this complicated and confused world on their own, their parents often too obsessed with careers or their own affairs to notice. With this, Cohen does a great service with her young adult novels. She writes books that show young adults they are not alone in their struggles. She reveals to adults the world they may not have realized exists. These are the black lies of a society that has too often lost track of values and lost sight of priorities. We can only be grateful for authors such as Cohen to remind us: the mask will eventually come off and we will have to face the painful consequences.
Tish Cohen is the author of several books for adults and young readers. Her adult novel Town House was a 2008 finalist for the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize Best First Book Award (Canada and Caribbean region) and is in development as a feature film. Cohen’s middle-grade novels, The Invisible Rule of the Zöe Lama and The One and Only Zöe Lama, were published in Canada and the United States. She has contributed articles to some of Canada’s largest newspapers, including The Globe and Mail and The National Post. Having grown up in Los Angeles and Orange County in California, and Montreal, Cohen now calls Toronto home.