It’s 1959 in fictitious Davisburg, Virginia, and it’s the first day at previously all-white Jefferson High School for ten Negro students, including senior Sarah Dunbar and her younger sister, Ruth.
For the first 50 pages of this brutally powerful novel, we live through that day with Sarah – from walking through hundreds of viciously angry white people in the parking lot, to the hell of the school corridors where constant abuse, and more, is thrown at her, to the passively hostile indifference of most of the teachers. All day, she is assaulted from all sides, and it is almost unbearably painful to read.
It doesn’t get any better in the ensuing days. But then Sarah is put on a French project with a white girl, Linda Hairston, and there is a spark of attraction between them. But how can that be? Linda is the daughter of one of the most vehement supporters of segregation in the town, and Linda, herself, believes that integration is “unnatural.” Both girls are deeply disturbed by their mutual attraction.
Told from the alternating viewpoints of Sarah and Linda, each chapter headed up with a lie such as “I don’t care what they think of me” and “None of this has anything to do with me”, Lies traces how both girls not only challenge their own perceptions, but also those of their parents. Talley does load the dice a bit – not only is Linda’s father a vicious racist, he also physically and verbally abuses his daughter. But Sarah is honest too, about the pressure from her parents and the NAACP for her and Ruth to be among the pioneer Negro students at this school, even at the risk of physical and psychological damage.
Is it too much to overlay a story of lesbian awakening onto the already inflammatory events of school desegregation? It does feel a little contrived, a little ‘of all the gin joints,’ that it should happen to these two girls, when there is already so much drama. But Lies is a long leisurely book and there is time for both the development of their relationship, and for Linda to realize the worthlessness of intellectual ideas if you are not applying them to actual people.
The language and intense situations give a reality to this book, but also make it best suited for mature readers.