On the surface, the story of Big Little Lies examining school yard politics, ex-husbands, and the dynamics of children does not appeal to me. But after a friend leant it to me with their recommendation, it took me from only morning to afternoon to finish. Liane Moriarty has set a classic murder mystery in a very Sydney setting but beyond the sizzle and flash and silly stereotypes, it is the story of a small community reeling with shock and coming to grips with a mysterious death. It is immensely readable, surprisingly humourous, and the mystery just kept me guessing.
From the back cover blurb, we know there has been a death, but the story starts in the months leading up to the night in question. We trace the lives of three women – Jane, Madeline and Celeste – as they each get their children ready to begin kindergarten at Pirriwee Primary. Jane is new to the suburb, and working out the northern beaches cliques; Madeline has done this all before; and Celeste is just bumping up against her twin boys and their madcap energy. There is a massive cast to this book, but these are our key players.
Madeline meets the new girl Jane and brings her into her friendship with Celeste after one morning – on her birthday no less – Madeline rolls her ankle in the middle of the road. Jane is in the car behind her and saves the day, taking their respective kids to the kindergarten orientation before being whisked off by Madeline to a champagne birthday breakfast with Celeste.
The narrative shifts between these three women throughout, and at the end of each chapter, additional perspectives are added: voices from the supporting cast, seemingly extracted from some sort of interview after the death, throwing in another view, a bitchy remark, an uninformed comment, a new perspective, bringing us back time and time again to the reason for the story, the mystery death.
Madeline’s narration in particular is a real joy. Her wry cattiness is perhaps uncomfortably familiar, voicing judgements but with such light and humour; there is no bad taste of nastiness left in your mouth:
“It was the kindergarten teacher, Miss Barnes, hair up in a high ponytail, skin glowing like an American cheerleader. She looked fresh and fecund. A delicious ripe piece of fruit…Her eyelids didn’t sag. Nothing sagged. Everything in her bright young life was clear and simple and perky. Nathan took his sunglasses off to see her better, visibly cheered just by the sight of her.”
My only real complaint is Moriarty’s pacing. The chapters are so, so short. It was infuriating to get to a crucial moment – again – just to be cut off – again! – as the chapter ends with more catty, oblique comments from interviews. The chapters felt like TV episodes cut far, far too short. We get it, it’s a mystery, you can tell us the story without it feeling like a soapie, leaving us hanging over the ad break.
In all this is a wry little mystery: a sharply observed situational comedy wrapped up in a deeply tragic secret. The characters and their competitions feel ridiculously Sydney, but at the same time the larger themes are universal in validity and seriousness. So Moriarty’s book is a kind of timeless tale, perfectly told in a very specific place.