Set in a small town in Kentucky in the 1970’s, at it’s core Liar’s Bench is a coming of age story, set against a backdrop of racial injustice. We first meet Mudas ‘Muddy’ Summers on her 17th birthday, and at a crucial time in her life. She’s in her final year of high school and on the cusp of adulthood, and she also thinks she might be in love for the first time – a confusing time for anyone. On this day, her mother has been found hung to death, however it is uncertain whether it was by her own hand, or that of her abusive husband – the stepfather who to Mudas, was nothing more than her mother’s husband. Refusing to believe that her mother would take her own life, Mudas sets out to uncover the truth of her mother’s death, in doing so uncovering secrets and lies that have stayed buried deep within the town for over a century; lies that began with the hanging of a slave, and the building of a seat from the gallows.
Really I could sum up my thoughts on this novel with one tweet:
Everyone needs to read 'Liar's Bench'. I literally felt all the feels - happy, sad, angry, shocked, joy, frustration, empty. All the feels.—
Heather Croxon (@heather_c3) April 08, 2015
But for the sake of posterity, I will attempt to articulate “the feels”. At the forefront was the almost heartbreak I felt as Mudas came to terms with her mother’s death. I think happiness and joy are spoken about so openly that they are easier feelings to write about in novels. But grief is more inward – when someone’s happy you can see it; when they are sad, they try to hide it. I was chatting with a fellow blogger recently about sadness in writing, and I mentioned that often the most grief stricken moments in novels are more beautiful to me than the happiest ones – when written well, it can show more about a character than happiness can. So as horrible as I may sound, Mudas’ pain over the death of her mother was probably the stand out moment for me in the book – the pain was real, and it was how I know I would feel if I was in that position.
But this sadness was balanced out beautifully with real moments of happiness. Of particular note was those moments throughout in which Mudas reminisced on her childhood, especially conversations she’d had with her grandmother. I think her grandmother was probably my favourite character. She didn’t make a lot of appearances, but each one was special and touching. When set in contrast with the loss of Mudas’ mother, this nostalgia for childhood served as a stark reminder of how we all wake up one day and have, without even realising it, moved from childhood to adulthood – sometimes when we are completely unprepared for it and when we least want it.
Another thing that struck me was the overall feel of the story, which I can only describe as ‘hot’. Along with the fact that the temperature of the Southern setting was physically hot, the racial tension running throughout added a different sort of heat. There was a steady build up of unease from the opening pages, which felt as though it could spill over into something much more physical at a moment’s notice. It is this sort of thing that not only keeps readers on edge, but also keeps them turning pages in anticipation. For me the mark of a good book is how difficult it is to put it down. If I had been physically able to sit and read the novel in it’s entirety in one day, I would have (but I didn’t because I have to pay the bills you guys). As it was, I read it pretty quickly anyway, that feeling of anticipation I mentioned making me basically inhale the words.
Long story short, Liar’s Bench sent me on a roller coaster ride of emotions, culminating in being completely devoid of just about anything as the novel reached its final chapters. Kim Michele Richardson’s 1970’s Kentucky felt entirely real, and the characters who inhabit it felt just as real. While it may have left me feeling like an emotional black hole, it also left me thinking about how even if we have a constant reminder of our past mistakes, we never really learn from them and will continue to repeat them in some way until the end of time.
Many thanks to Kensington Books and NetGalley for providing a review copy in exchange for an honest review!