By Ashly Moore Sheldon • July 06, 2021
It may sound a little contrary, but for National Tell the Truth Day, we're celebrating with a list of some of our favorite literary liars and secret keepers. It's just that liars and secrets are, arguably, a bit more interesting to read about than truth tellers. In fact, as we gathered titles for this post, we started to realize that many of the best stories involve major fibs and shocking secrets.
An unreliable narrator makes for a good suspenseful yarn, as the reader must try to learn the truth from a character who is unwilling or unable to stick to the facts. Here are a few that we like.
The lovable Yunior in Junot Díaz's The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao admits to exaggerating, elaborating, and, yes, lying as he tells his story of pursuing success and love, despite being an "overweight ghetto nerd." His story continues in This is How You Lose Her.
Thirteen-year-old Briony's misunderstanding of an interaction between her sister Cecilia and Robbie Turner, the son of a servant, brings about a crime that will change all of their lives in the virtuosic Atonement by Ian McEwan.
In Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, a young woman looks back at her experiences at Hailsham, a secluded boarding school in the English countryside. And for the first time she begins to understand the truth about that place.
Cadence Sinclair Easton has always enjoyed spending summers on her family's Island retreat. But one summer, something terrible happens—something Cadence can't seem to remember. We Were Liars offers modern, sophisticated suspense from E. Lockhart.
Sometimes the story begins when the lie is revealed, as in these juicy novels about fathers with secret families. We had fun comparing and contrasting two stories featuring teenage girls with a secret half-sister who is almost her same age. Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones, is perhaps the darker portrayal. In 1980s Atlanta, Dana has grown up with the painful knowledge that she is the "secret daughter" and she covertly establishes a relationship with Chaurisse, who has no idea about their father's double life.
Elizabeth Acevedo's YA novel-in-verse, Clap When You Land, begins with a plane crash. In the wake of their father's shocking death, NYC native Yahaira and Camino in the Dominican Republic finally learn of each other's existence.
In other stories, characters have staked their lives on a lie and dread the possibility of being found out. In The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett, Stella, a light-skinned Black woman, makes the decision to leave her past behind, including a twin sister, when she decides to "pass" as white, first for a job and then for marriage, and keeps her new life and her new self away from her family.
In M. L. Stedman's The Light Between Oceans, a lighthouse keeper and his wife long for a baby after two miscarriages and one stillbirth. When a boat washes up on their isolated island carrying a dead man and a living infant, it seems like "a gift from God" and they decide to bury the body and keep the baby as their own—a choice riddled with consequences.
There was simply no shortage of great options when it came to selecting books for this list. It goes to show you, whether in truth or fiction, big fat lies are certainly the basis for lots of juicy, twisty tales. Let us know if you have any literary liars to add to the list.