Review: Big Little Lies

With a large cast of primary school parents, a suspicious death and a dénouement that explores domestic abuse, Liane Moriarty’s HBO hit is a page-turner with a big message.

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Big Little Lies was published in 2014 – one in a string of hits for Australian author, Liane Moriarty. This was the first book to make it to Hollywood, however, with HBO turning it into a series starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley.

Liane Moriarty is probably as close as I ever get to “chick lit”. I enjoyed ‘The Husband’s Secret’ (published the year prior) and this is the second book of hers I read whilst writing my first book, and seeking to discover how well-known authors were handling infidelity storylines. Contrary to billing, it’s ‘The Husband’s Secret’ which tackles infidelity head-on (and for my money, it’s a more engaging and meaningful read), but this story has much to recommend it too.

It’s the start of term at Pirriwee Public School, and Jane has recently moved to the area with her son, Ziggy, to start afresh. She quickly makes friends with the outspoken Madeline and glamorous Celeste, whose children will also be in Ziggy’s class.

At a fundraiser, someone dies, but we don’t know who or how – and we won’t find out the details until the dénouement. The creative stalling for time (as the individual stories unfold), combined with Moriarty’s knowing humour which rings throughout, keeps you turning pages, until the ending delivers a sobering reality, handling domestic abuse with sensitivity and a depth you might not expect from the tone of the story.

Moriarty manages a large cast of characters with aplomb. We meet them along with Jane, and her mnemonics help bookmark the players enough to keep a handle on who’s who. With a cast this big, it’s difficult to work with subtle character traits, so it’s more of a case of planting a flag and differentiating – creating enough contrast to avoid confusion. Cameos from police interviews – which ostensibly offer tidbits of information about the murder – actually serve to re-establish minor characters whose motivations will be important later, and who risk getting lost along the way.

Because of the simplicity and accessibility of the prose, it’s a case of art concealing art – a lesson in authorial plate-spinning. And a few clatter. Jane, highly anxious and inclined to dwell on the past, suddenly becomes an optimist. And if you’re going to have a catchphrase that sticks out like a sore thumb (‘Oh, calamity’), you want to make sure one character keeps a tight grip on it. But none of these spoil the read, because there is a sense of ‘knowing what you’re in for’, when it comes to this author.

As with other Moriarty reads, I couldn’t help but feel that she had something on the tip of her tongue and that it was never quite said, until the end, where it was announced with a drum roll and cymbal clash, and lost its nuance in all the noise.

But maybe that’s genre preference, above anything else.

In short? It’s a good read – a page-turner that mixes complex social issues with light, airy prose. And sometimes that’s exactly the read you need.