I usually get advance reader copies of middle grade novels about three months before they are due to be released. If a book catches my eye, it goes on my desk at the end of a row organized by publication date and I read and review as close to that date as possible. However, the title alone for Caela Carter's forthcoming book gave me pause. Then blurb on the back was so compelling that it made me do something I haven't done in ages - read a book more than three months before the pub date. My Life with the Liars will be compared to stories with characters who are challenged by differences be they physical, mental, emotional or intellectual as in recent books like Counting by 7s, Mockingbird, Out of My Mind and Wonder. For me, Carter's book most immediately called to mind one of my favorites, The Giver, yet another reason why I had to dive right into it!
The setting of an "utopian" community and the choices and sacrifices the people living in this community make (knowingly or unknowingly) to live there, as in The Giver, fascinates me. Zylynn, the narrator of My Life with the Liars, comes from a similar, if more insidious, place. As the book begins, Zylynn has been expelled from the community that she has grown up in, days before her thirteenth birthday and the momentous ceremony that will assure her place as a member of the Children of the Light. Now Zylynn must live cautiously in this new, outside world that she has been taught is filled with darkness, danger and lies. This a bit like the plot for a science fiction, or even a dystopian novel, but it is the real world story of a child who has been raised within the walls of a cult in the middle of the Arizona desert and must leave when her father gains full custody of her.
As My Life with the Liars unfolds, flashbacks of Zylynn's life inside the light - the walls are white, the members wear only white and the lights are always on - reveal the bizarre practices handed down from Mother God to Father Prophet, a man who started out wanting to shun the trappings of capitalism and greed and spread this philosophy to others. Carter carefully reveals aspects of life in the cult and the severe beliefs held by the members that are appropriate for young readers, intensifying Zylynn's experience in this outside world she has been raised to believe is vile. These scenes are balanced by Zylynn's experiences navigating this world and the new family she has been brought into. Her father, whom she has no memories of, has remarried and has three small children. Like the member's of Jonah's community in The Giver, Zylynn has grown up without so many things we take for granted, like food, toys and hugs. She has been raised in a world with unconscionable deprivations, from "Hungry Days," a punishment from Mother God that She is unhappy with her followers that have left many of the children malnourished, to the separation of men and women, girls and boys, parents and children. The children born into the cult or brought to it as infants are raised without knowing who their parents are, believing that Father Prophet and Mother God are their parents. Physical affection towards the children is reserved for the rare Feast Days when the women return from prosthelytizing in the darkness with new recruits - and money.
The opening of Zylynn's reality to the abundance of food in her new home and the amazing fact that it just keeps coming is fascinating, as is her first trip to a Target to get new, colorful clothes. Zylynn has been told not leave her words behind in the Darkness, and she cautiously counts every word she speaks. As she encounters the actual things that she has learned about in her Outside Studies classes, things like shampoo, carpet and toys, she slowly begins to allow Curiosity, which is "evil and conniving" and strictly forbidden inside the cult, into her life as these oddities pile up around her. When Zylynn begins cry, finally wondering who her mother is, she says, "It's scary because I'm not supposed to want to know anything about anything. Curiosity is leaking out of my eyes." While Zylynn does give in to some of the pleasures of the Outside world, she is also continuously thinking about the Father Prophet, praying to him, pleasing him and returning to the compound. As she is trying to make her way back in a harrowing scene at the end of the book Zylynn thinks, "I wonder why they only gave us words and no information. The words were not enough. Why didn't they give us a map? Or chains to pull ourselves back with? I had to grow my own chains to get back here." Zylynn's voice is short, sparse and, occasionally, expressive of the strange, vague educational and social experiences she was raised with. When speaking of the number of lights in her dorm inside the compound she says with all earnestness, there were "one hundred or six hundred" bulbs. Time passes in a day or months and the difference in these extremes are lost on Zylynn, just as the extreme differences between life inside the compound and the outside world are lost on her.
While this is all very compelling, what is truly intriguing about My Life with the Liars is the slow process Zylynn goes through as she learns about family, love and positive connections. This is exactly what makes Carter's book a wonderful middle grade novel with a hopeful, rewarding ending. As an adult reader, I had to quiet everything that I know about cults, but Carter's writing made it easy to slip into the experience (and food) starved mind of twelve-year-old Zylynn and see the world through her eyes. Zylynn's is a truly unique perspective and a fascinating new voice that Carter has brought to the page.
Source: Review Copy