My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Michelle Boyajian’s debut novel, Lies of the Heart, is too slippery to be assigned one genre. It takes off in a prologue with the sentence, “It’s one of those surreal moments in life, sitting there in the courtroom and staring into the eyes of her husband’s killer.” Remember this —it is your first clue. Murder is the MacGuffin that drives the book, but this is not a simple murder mystery or courtroom drama. The prologue is one paragraph and by the bottom of the page the reader knows who was killed and by whom and that the killer is in custody. The mystery that Katie Burelli, the protagonist, spends over three hundred pages trying to solve is the mystery of motive. Why did Jerry LaPlante, the thirty-eight year old mentally retarded man Katie and her husband Nick practically adopted steal a gun and fire a bullet at point blank range into Nick’s skull?
It is in the prologue that we find Katie imagining in her mind’s eye, through the vehicle of staring into Nick’s eyes, the trajectory of the bullet, the death of the brain—feeling by feeling, memory by memory. The scenario she pictures is rendered in exquisite detail, a mixture of poetry and pathology. We learn later in the book that Katie is a documentary film maker.
Death is not the only mystery in Lies of the Heart. The relationships between parents and children, friends, siblings, and married couples are explored throughout. Boyajian cuts between Jerry LaPlante’s trial (in the present tense) and past episodes in Katie’s life. For example, the reader is given glimpses of Arthur and Sarah Cohen, a couple who survived the Holocaust, while Katie is depicted watching footage of a documentary she has been working on. Although the Cohens have died, the film is always present tense. The Cohen’s, her sister, her friends, and even a stranger lend her wisdom and lessons in morality—advice an astute reader would have given her chapters before so that by the close of the book the long overdue loose ends are wrapped up.
As the book progresses, secrets unfold, betrayals are revealed, and catastrophe initiates change and growth. The narrative, even when addressing what should be happy moments, is weighted with poignancy and grief. This is not a book to read in one sitting, nor it is a book for a reader seeking action or suspense.
Boyajian’s pace is deliberately slow. Dialogue is backgrounded and description takes the foreground. This is appropriate, since Katie is frequently shown staring, watching, and seeing. She is outside the frame and studying other people for information about herself. Some of the people she studies resent her obsessive scrutiny, and that scrutiny has far-reaching and dangerous effects.
Boyajian has been called “a stunning new voice in women’s fiction” but again, it is unfair to dismiss this book as “women’s fiction”. Ultimately in Lies of the Heart, absolute truth and the possibility of objective knowledge are called into question; themes that include any literature, women’s or otherwise. Lies of the Heart is a strong first novel and I look forward to reading more fiction from Michelle Boyajian.