Last week the Nosy Crow Guardian Reading Group met to discuss Rebecca Stead’s Liar and Spy, winner of last year’s Guardian children’s fiction prize. In his review of the book for The Guardian, Philip Ardagh called Liar and Spy “very short, very American and very enjoyable … Rebecca Stead makes writing this well look easy.”
And there was, I think, fairly unanimous agreement with this assessment from the members of our group: this was a book that everyone enjoyed – though for a variety of quite different reasons, on which more in a moment. For anyone who hasn’t read the book yet, beware – there may be spoilers ahead!
Who’s it for?
Broadly speaking, this was a book that we all felt would “work” for a core audience of 8-10 or 9-12 year olds… though we also agreed that it could be an excellent book to read at bedtime to younger children (6+), and one person had spotted it on display in the teen section of Blackwells in Oxford (and although we largely felt that teenagers would find a lot to enjoy, it seemed like it might be a harder sell for this age group).
It was, then, the book with probably the widest perceived audience of any title we’ve discussed at the Reading Group – and the reasons for this are a large part of what we liked about. Its broad potential age range was largely thought to be down to its canny mix of parent-friendliness – there’s no sex, drugs or bad language – balanced against sophisticated language and ideas: overall, it has a rather timeless quality. It is a book that takes place on several levels, and – we all agreed – successfully juggles a set of quite subtle, clever themes that older children (and adults!) will find a lot to enjoy in, with very good depictions of school and home life with which younger readers would happily identify. And for younger children, we also thought that the fact that it was very child-centred was a real strength: the novel takes place entirely through the eyes of a child, and reflects his concerns, his worldview, and a set of well-drawn environments to which other children could easily relate.
That being said, it did not feel particularly plot-driven to anyone (the ostensible “plot” of the novel, concerning an investigation into a neighbour, Mr X, by Georges and Safer, is deliberately undermined by the story’s end) which disappointed some of us, who felt that for younger children it would not be a satisfying conclusion… but pleased other members of the group, with one person saying that the ending felt like it rang very true – that being denied adventure, and having “reality knocking on the door”, was an essential part of childhood. And some of us also felt that the plot (or lack thereof) cleverly mirrored the book’s key themes of boredom and loneliness.
Those who felt that the lack of plot was a problem also saw the “obstacles” of the story as being rather too slight to sustain the narrative – and that, when held to any sort of close scrutiny, these obstacles sort of fell apart… but again there was some disagreement here, with the book’s defenders enjoying the fact that it was more-character driven, and that, treated on its own terms, the obstacles felt perfectly appropriate – the sort of things that children worry about lots.
Perhaps the most striking element of Liar and Spy is its style: as Philip said in his review, the book is very short, and contains the sort of writing that looks effortless. It’s a very pared down style, which members of our group felt was both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, it’s a kind of writing that is very flattering to its reader’s intelligence: we are left to fill in a lot of the gaps ourselves, and there are jokes, metaphors and recurring themes to spot which don’t immediately call attention to themselves. Some of us, however, thought that the lack of physical description in a book that is so character-driven was a real problem: Stead seems to go out of her way to provide as little concrete description of the characters as possible, and a few members of the group found it hard to get much of a grip on them without at least some basic physical detail – and also felt that a lack of description made some narrative elements (like the school bullying) harder to accept: why exactly was Georges being bullied?
The aspect that proved to be most divisive was, I think, the novel’s end. Although the actual spying plot itself is one that really becomes more of an afterthought, a number of us still found the ending a satisfying and surprising one: one person compared it to The Sixth Sense for the way that Stead drops clues throughout the novel. There was quite a lot of debate as to the most surprising element of the ending: for some of us, it was the true nature of Mr X, for others, it was Safer’s agoraphobia, for others, Georges’ mother’s illness. I think that everyone felt that every aspect had been emotionally “resolved”. And several people were quite happy that the spy plot “undermined” itself – happy that the story didn’t descend into “Grand Guignol horror”.
What’s it about?
Although we all enjoyed it a great deal, I don’t think there was any real consensus as to what Liar and Spy is “about” (and I’m still not sure that I know what I think). There’s certainly an element of growing-and-learning, but I don’t think this could be described as the novel’s central theme. For some of us, it was about learning about rules. For others, it was ALL about lying (no-one could agree on exactly who the biggest liar in the book is, though). Some people saw it as being about loneliness and isolation. I think that the novel’s greatest strength could well be that we all cared about different things: it really was a novel that spoke to us all differently.
Have you read the book? What did you make of it? We’d love to hear your thoughts! Do please leave your comments below.
And if you’d like to take part in next month’s book group, we’ll be meeting a week earlier than usual to discuss the Costa-winning Goth Girl by Chris Riddell, on Thursday February 6 at 6.30pm, here in the Crow’s Nest – if you’d like to come along, send an email to [email protected].