Tricky thing, unreliable narrators. In the right hands, they can keep readers guessing in Dick-Dastardly clever fashion, making us feel like the sole source left to decipher the plot’s meaning. When abused though, they can feel like a cheat. An excuse for authorial inconsistencies (it was my unreliable narrator, don’t blame me!), and a major risk of making large story sections feel pointless at the end. Which is what Sometimes I Lie achieves effortlessly.
Now, the last third of the book is the best bit. Those years Alice Feeney spent at Faber Academy clearly taught her the clockwork mechanics of a plot that fits together in snappy, tautly tessellated fashion. But it makes the first two thirds a waste of time. Especially when they weren’t that good to begin with.
After a poor-man’s-Proustian opening where our narrator, Amber, opines on the state between sleep and waking reality, we dive into a world of maudlin melodrama and cardboard characters.
People who say things like:
‘Life is more terrifying than death in my experience’.
(tell me more about your experience of being dead)
‘Her mouth contorts so it looks like she’s unwrapping toffees with her arse’
(for when your nonsensical scenario needs a clunky phrase)
‘We’re all made of flesh and stars, but we all become dust in the end. Best to shine while you can.’
(coming to a fridge magnet near you)
Amber’s life is really hard, you see. She’s in a coma for a start. Which means we’re firmly inside her head for the duration. Oh joys. How did she get there? Well, no spoilers here (no sir), but it’s safe to say events spiral erratically out of control when she picks a fight with her radio producer Madeline. Her job in Bridget Jones-level make-believe-media-world was in jeopardy at the time, so it’s thinly excusable.
And Madeline is a real bitch. She does things like ask for her favourite mug, then when informed it’s in the dishwasher, whips round to spit in moustache-twirling spite: ‘Then wash it. By hand.’ She is a monster.
How do we know Amber leads a tragic life? Maybe it’s because the motley-crew-cast of her life seem intent on entering and exiting any room she’s in at breakneck pace. Her sister will come round for a chat one minute, receive a slightly awkward glance from Amber, then shoot off again. Same thing with her husband. Their hobby is going in and out of rooms, which is a shame, because Amber isn’t a fan. She’ll lament their coming and going, then lament her tragic life.
We can’t forget she leads a tragic life because she moans about it. All the fucking time. She’ll constantly set up what she wants to do, then tack on ‘but I can’t’ / ‘but it won’t / ‘so I don’t’. She has bouts of OCD that flare up at pivotal plot moments. I lost track of the amount of times she tells us ‘I hate myself’ in one form or another…
Exhibit A. ‘A lot of people would think I have a dream job, but nightmares are dreams too.’
Exhibit B. ‘I hate this body almost as much as I hate myself…it didn’t give him what he wanted’
Amber’s version of tragedy is not being able to tell her husband about her pregnancy because, oh horror of horrors, he’s whisking her away on his worldwide book tour! But you can bet she’ll agonise over it for a good few pages, and we’ll be there to lend a fraying ear.
See, when you reach too much for melodrama, milking the blackest bits of human experience, it desensitises us to them. Amber will find herself in a tough spot, then say ‘but then it got so much worse’ or ‘I don’t deserve anyone’s pity, not even my own’. Feeney maxes out our tragedy-meter early on. These maudlin characters have supposedly shit lives, we get it.
The twisty-turny last third, which critics have creamed themselves over, is the best bit no doubt. But it’s marred by what feels like betrayal. Summed up by Amber’s wandering mind here:
‘I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation, but the voices in my head are less optimistic.’
Now that’s an above-average line. But it isolates us as readers. There are other voices in your head? I thought we were the only voice in your head? How long have you been hearing other voices? It feels like we’ve been neglected, kept in the dark so that her final flourish will have the required out-of-nowhere punch.
I won’t say too much about the ending, other than that it leaves us without many ‘normal’ characters. The majority are self-hating-psychos-cum-malevolent-addicts. Not the people you really want to spend 400 pages with, I’m afraid.
What You Should Be Reading
Marcel Proust. Remembrance of Things Past
Proust’s masterwork starts with a similarly Feeney-ian thought about the ‘freefall between sleep and wakefulness’. And that’s about as far as the comparison goes. Follow Proust’s staggeringly superior opening with an epic essay on memory, love, home, time, and childhood. Don’t be put off by the size: it’s split into separate books so treat them as such. Swann’s Way comes first. Read it to find beauty in everything from the minutia of social interaction, to thoughts snatched from throes of deepest childhood, to long and ambling walks in French woods. Not much happens plot wise but it’s choc-full of lines perfectly preserved from mindful inner monologue to bodily page (with a hint of Proustian razzle-dazzle of course).
Named and Shamed
Mislaid praise from ‘critics’ today
‘Sometimes I Lie is a rare book, combing helter skelter twists with razor sharp sentences’
– Dan Dalton, Buzzfeed
‘Satisfyingly serpentine, and with a terrific double twist in the tale, it leaves you longing for more.’
– Geoffrey Wansell, Daily Mail
‘Intriguing, original and addictive, I can’t wait to see what the author does after this blinding debut.’
– [unknown, presumably Claire Frost], The Sun
 And precious few other times… gotta hate that narratively-timed OCD