Carnegie Roehampton Readers Review: Liar and Spy

Carnegie Greenway MedalsThe Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at Roehampton University to discuss the books, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove. 


Review: Liar and Spy by Rebecca Stead

By Julie Mills

Liar and Spy is a story about deception and perception, ways of seeing and ways of showing and gaining a sense of perspective. If this makes it sound like a daunting or dull read it is nothing of the sort for Rebecca Stead tells her story with wit and humour, a light touch in dialogue and an easy pace which allows for lyrical touches which engage all the senses. There are two (at least) central images: the pointillist style as in the art of Georges Seurat and the sense of taste. The narrative involves the themes of deception but also bullying at school, friendship, and emotional reaction to changes, all wrapped up in the mesh of emerging from childhood into adolescence.

Liar and Spy by Rebecca SteadThe setting is ordinary people in contemporary urban location of New York. The chief character and, as it turns out, unreliable narrator is Georges (with an S) who has just moved from his childhood home across town to a New York apartment. George’s father has recently lost his job and Georges is no longer best friends with his childhood playmate Jason. He is bullied at school – why? Because of his lack of prowess in sport – he dreads PE lessons, or his name perhaps which is as good an excuse as any for the class ring leader. The teasing gets progressively worse throughout the novel but apart from occasional physical contact, is predominantly verbal – there is no cyber element here and I find myself checking exactly which era we are in? Is it pre-digital?
These things are revealed bit by bit through the narrative which is first person Georges and the themes are cleverly woven in with the twin threads of the plot which are, apparently, the school science project on taste and the growing friendship between Georges and Safer, a boy of his age who lives in the same apartment block. Safer does not go to school nor does his sister although his older brother has just started having chosen not go to high school. Georges says his mum describes the family as Bohemian. Safer draws Georges in to his obsession with Mr X. a man in the apartment above Georges who Safer has under surveillance suspecting him of horrible deeds. As a reader I soon begin to suspect that Safer is inventing much about his suspicions and evidence that Mr. X is some kind of serial killer and that he is continuously testing Georges and making him go further than he wants to – keeping watch out and ultimately entering Mr. X’s apartment. By page 88 I am convinced there is deception but am intrigued to know why. Meanwhile at school the taste test – the culmination of the science project draws nearer – the test has become legendary in the school as not just a simple test to identify pupils lacking the taste buds which can detect an unpleasant substance, but as a forecaster of future fate – death or love.(p35)

And here another issue is emerging – that of the “outsiders”. Safer and his family are different certainly to Georges who nevertheless appreciates their welcoming of him. At school Georges’ companion is “Bob English who draws” another outsider who clearly sees everything visually and likes to communicate in the same way.The metaphor of the taste and the five or six different tastes from sweet to umami intersperse George’s memories of his childhood, especially of his mother who is clearly a wonderful woman and is largely missing in person in the action of the novel, due to her working double shifts as an intensive care nurse. OR IS SHE? I did not catch on until almost the denouement in spite of clues left, like dots, in the narrative – George’s Dad taking clothes and favourite snacks to her at the hospital and spending a lot of time there, when she is supposed to be working. The many murmured phone calls behind closed doors which Georges refers us to. So completely blinded was I by the smokescreen put up by Rebecca Stead about Safer’s game of deception, as it turns out to be, – that I did not pick up on the truth until it is revealed by Georges Georges knows the truth, but has been unable to face up to it and has been deceiving himself. His final acceptance comes right after he has devised and executed a campaign which foils the class bully’s persecution of him and others by rallying all the “outsider” or “ not cool kids” to stick together and sabotage the famous taste test – all feigning non-detection of the unpleasant substance and bucking the stats which say there will normally be only 1 or 2 non tasters in a class.

Apart from the taste analogy through the book, running through the narrative Rebecca Stead also refers to the technique of pointilisme as executed by Georges Seurat, our unreliable narrator’s namesake. Georges’ mum often advises him to look at life as a big picture to see clearly and not get bogged down in detail. This is like looking at a Seurat painting – look too closely and all you see are unrelated dots. This is echoed in the description of George’s mother’s first aeroplane flight seeing things from above from a different perspective. The “ways of seeing” analogy is central to the themes and we have seen it in the surveillance techniques, Safer using binoculaurs to watch the parakeets nesting, Bob English who draws visual messages, scrabble tiles making up a message, a blue dot on the palm of your hand, a fortune cookie message. These elements and the multiple narrative are like the different colours of the dots making up the whole finished novel, and we are only able to see the whole picture of this story when Georges our unreliable narrator can finally step away from his self-deception about his mother.

Once this is revealed and Georges comes to terms with Safer’s deception over Mr. X which he says was a game he thought Georges was in on all along, the resolution is swift – too swift and easy perhaps? George’s mum is almost fully recovered, his Dad is building a new career and. Mr. X is revealed to be a normal guy. Also revealed is Safer’s other less than honest depiction of himself covering up for his agoraphobia and other fears – lifts, germs and endless others. Safer is now going out and about and is talking even of going to school.

These complex elements are structured into a deceptively simple story, Rebecca Stead’s apparently easy style tis actually playing with her readers and our responses until she finally gives us the perspective to see how all the dots join up.

Seurat Sunday Afternoon on the island of Grand Jatte


About Erica Gillingham

Academic, Writer, Craft. LGBT Children's Literature. London, UK, via California ·

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