Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review: The Secret to Lying by Todd Mitchell

Since I'm always on the lookout for titles dealing with mental illness, when I saw Publisher's Weekly described this as "a vivid picture of teenage social and mental health issues," I knew I had to have it. The fact that it's set in a boarding school and is filled with pranks, a la the inimitable Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks,  was a bonus.

The Secret to LyingAt his small town high school, James was all but invisible. So when he is accepted to a prestigious boarding school for the gifted and talented, he takes the opportunity to re-make himself into a brooding punk with a history of carjacking and back alley brawls. He quickly falls in with a new group of friends, and even gets a hot girlfriend. Only two people remain unimpressed: the school's ice queen Ellie (who inspires boyfriends to pull crazy stunts like run half naked around campus out of love for her) and ghost44, another student who communicates with James only via IM and sees right through his facade.

During the day, life is going well for James, as he and his friends begin an escalating prank war with a few guys down the hall (and also stage some epic performance art level protests against the awful cafeteria food). But nighttime is a different story, as James begins to dream of being a demon hunter. While the dreams are exciting at first, they begin to bleed over into James' real life, distracting him from his friends and his studies, and inspiring James to attempt deadly feats when he's awake. Will he be able to pull himself out before he gets out of control?

While the pranking wasn't on the epic level of Disreputable History (Frankie's pranks all had some sort of philosophical point behind them while James' are petty and silly), this is definitely an excellent book on identity, belonging and mental illness. James and one other major character have some major psychological struggles (I'm maintaining the anonymity of the other character because the big reveal doesn't come until the final chapter), but it's handled sensitively and deftly. There are no big revelatory scenes, rather James' illness progresses smoothly through the book so even the reader doesn't realize just how dangerous his dreams are until well into the story.

And those dreams - damn are they spooky. I often see dreams used as a sort of lazy plot device, a way for a character to metaphorically examine events of the story without relying on pages of exposition and internal monologues. Here the dreams form a whole other narrative where it isn't immediately clear what bearing they will have on the rest of the story, or if they will at all, and it's all fabulously creepy. The pranks and humor throughout James' waking moments provide and excellent and much needed counterpoint to the seriousness of his dreams and inner thoughts.
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