Publisher: Hot Key Books.
Paperback, 384 pages.
Release date: August 27th 2015.
Rating: 4 out of 5.
Reviewed by: Arianne.
A startling coming-of-age novel set in a contemporary Nazi England.
Jessika Keller is a good girl: she obeys her father, does her best to impress Herr Fisher at the Bund Deutscher Mädel meetings and is set to be a world champion ice skater. Her neighbour Clementine is not so submissive. Outspoken and radical, Clem is delectably dangerous and rebellious. And the regime has noticed. Jess cannot keep both her perfect life and her dearest friend. But which can she live without?
THE BIG LIE is a thought-provoking and beautifully told story that explores ideas of loyalty, sexuality, protest and belief.
For fans of Jess Vallance, Louise O’Neill and Elizabeth Wein, this gritty, hard-hitting tale is built around one simple question: what if WWII had ended differently?
The Big Lie is narrated by Jessika, who comes from a respected family, submits to the doctrine she’s grown up with and judges harshly anyone who doesn’t fit in. She even ice skates and wants to represent her country. The reader soon realizes, however, that Jess isn’t just naïve: she verges on being an unreliable narrator. It may seem ordinary from a distance, but her society is one where neighbours inform on each other, where friends betray more often than they help, and where parents would rather see their children in excruciating pain than question government indoctrination. When Jess sees travesties unfold around her, she rarely describes them by name. There’s a lot she’s hiding – from the reader, and from herself.
The Big Lie doesn’t make for easy reading, but then it’s not supposed to. It’s an incredibly important exploration of what happens when people stop questioning the world around them. It forces the reader to contemplate a society where everything that’s so brilliant about being a modern teen simply didn’t exist, or was seen as dangerous, something to be squashed out. It draws fierce parallels with modern humanity’s tendency to ignore dangerous realities and injustices even as we swim up to our necks in them, and reminds us that we should always try to see the world not as we’re told it is, but as it really is. The issues raised in The Big Lie aren’t just political, either. The book is filled with detail and there’s even an array of LGBTQ+ characters. We’re confronted with some huge themes - everything from sexism to family strife, loss of innocence to the consequences of failure.
It’s new girl Clementine who starts to reveal the truth to Jess, slowly pointing out the holes in the dogma that surrounds her and unpicking the fabric of the life Jessika’s told herself she’s happy in. Outspoken, reckless and rebellious, there’s nothing tame about Clementine. Her arrival causes chaos for Jessika, who is soon faced with a choice between doing what she’s been brainwashed to or doing what she knows in her heart is risky, but also right. Readers will hope against hope that each small act of rebellion is a sign the regime is falling and that there will be a happily ever after, but this isn’t The Hunger Games. It’s not Divergent. This is dystopia at its most cruel, because it’s dystopia meets alternate history, and it reads like a knife edge.
Unfortunately, the book isn’t as emotional as it needs to be. Many of the characters aren’t three-dimensional and it’s not exactly a story you can enjoy, either. It’s very subversive, so we’re never really sure what’s going on. The narrative – which some readers may find difficult to get used to as it’s so choppy and peppered with German - leaps from one situation to the next without much context or clarity. The structure isn’t complicated, but the writing style makes the book occasionally confusing, particularly in its second half. It’s a bold, risk-taking tale, but Jessika lives in a society devoid of kindness and some of the events in the book are horrific, so it’s not for younger readers. Even older readers may need a cup of tea and an episode of Coronation Street afterwards. It’s almost inevitable, then, that as The Big Lie deals with such heavy issues, they overshadow everything in their path, but it will keep you on tenterhooks from start to finish.
In short: Desolate, startling and totally unique, The Big Lie is a big hitter when it comes to the hard questions and it doesn’t hold back. Mayhew dives deep into a horrifying world most of us would rather not imagine and forces the reader to question every word on the page. This chilling take on dystopia will win acclaim for its sheer audacity alone. Dark, twisted and utterly uncompromising.