I have a confession to make.
For about six months, I was fairly certain domestic noir had peaked.
Finding good stories, stories that stood out, felt nigh impossible. Every book was now ‘the next Girl on the Train‘. Novels blurred together one dysfunctional marriage or dysfunctional sibling rivalry or dysfunctional extra-marital affair after another.
Don’t get me wrong, I understand that tension begins with expectation, whether met or subverted, that even the most unconventional stories need an old-fashioned plot or two smuggled in somewhere.
I’d reached a point, however, where I’d half-developed a genre-based drinking game – a single shot for a snide critique of the female condition, two fingers each time your narrator reminds you they’re unreliable, three if you guessed that the sister (who appeared once in chapter four) actually committed the crime at the end.
It was becoming painfully, absurdly, predictable.
And then along came Perfect Liars.
The debut novel from freelance journalist Rebecca Reid, at first glance, Perfect Liars looks like the conventional domestic noir personified.
Sixteen years ago, reads the inside jacket, at an elite boarding school secluded in the English countryside, best friends Nancy, Georgia and Lila did something unspeakable … but now one of them wants to talk. Three women walk into dinner, but only two will leave.
So far, so Mallory Towers for murderinos (with a little drawing room theatre thrown in for good measure).
But after that, any expectations of where Reid is going should be flung from the cliff tops – because Perfect Liars is an acutely intelligent, deeply psychological debut – and when Transworld described it as “dark and twisty”, they were being coy.
As you might have gathered, the novel centres on the friendship between Nancy, Georgia, and Lila. These ladies scheme, swear, fuck, and snort coke – they defy likability like all the best women in domestic noirs.
And yet they’re also obsessed with convention – which is where the plot thickens.
In their own way, they appeal to variations on female stereotypes. Georgia, the marriage plot fanatic; Lila, the manic pixie dream girl; Nancy, the British boarding school equivalent of “Amazing Amy” (yes, genre #allusions abound and you should keep your eyes peeled for all of them). Each of them has perfected their version of a ‘polished, performative femininity‘ – but not for the men in their lives. They perform almost exclusively for one another.
Think of it this way. For most of us, the best friendships are unselfish, offering companionship, support, chances to dance on tables when you succeed, or to sob into a shoulder when something goes awry. On the other hand, a toxic friendship is narcissistic: you look at them and they at you and it’s the speculative measuring and remeasuring of each other’s waistlines, wrinkles, bank balances, career achievements, familial success. They end up embodying everything you wish you were (or weren’t).
It is this latter kind of friendship we recognise between Georgia, Nancy and Lila.
Their relationship, like everything else in their lives, is performance art – curated to prick at each other’s nerves, to emphasise their superiority over one another. They compete, seek out weaknesses and opportunities to exploit them, question each other’s motives and modus operandi. They are dark mirrors reflecting the worst of each other.
“Why are you still friends?” ask the trophy husbands in turn.
And whilst their shared secret provides an obvious answer – the novel unpacks something far more interesting: it examines our fascination with appearances and the lines we’ll cross to maintain them. You can never be sure what the truth is in Perfect Liars.
Now I’ll let you decide what’s real and what’s false in the end (preorder now), but there are couple things you should keep an eye out for.
First: pay attention to Reid’s meticulous use of detail. The deliberateness of her language and imagery curates an atmosphere of constant suspicion. Ignore nothing. For instance, those out-of-season blooms in the prologue and the fake flowers throughout Georgia’s pristine home – peonies are to Perfect Liars as the fire is to Lord of the Flies – and similar symbols and clues are everywhere. Reflecting the borderline obsession of the women with status and outward appearance, deeper meanings lurk below every line.
Second: watch how the narrative voice and structure reflect an ever-more-intricate web between the friends. Each chapter is told in close third-person, with new chapters indicating a point-of-view shift from Nancy to Lila to Georgia. The structure is likewise built so that whilst the central plot takes place during the course of a present-day dinner party, we have repeated flashbacks to their time at school (which wisely gives the story time to breathe). These flashbacks divulge a little more of their friendship, tease out the secret understood to have consumed their adult lives. The fluctuations in voice and setting mean that each time it seems the mystery might finally get its reveal, another layer is added – a fresh opinion, an alternate recollection, a new personal demon (or the falsification of one). Note them, question them.
Because all of these elements combine into stifling claustrophobia, mounting pressure. There’s no escaping the past. Georgia’s perfect dinner party spirals towards chaos. The novel reaches its crescendo and what could have been a comedy of manners transforms into a taut psychological thriller.
Reid’s knack for tension and comedic brilliance succeed in doing something many writers of domestic noir aspire to do: she confronts us with what we’re capable of – and makes us feel complicit in the horror.
Alongside the deft management of tricky subjects: female friendships, toxic relationships, miscarriage and fertility, internalised sexism, mental health – it takes a long, hard look at the fragility of civility what lines can be crossed.
I felt myself cross over those lines. Nancy, Georgia and Lila are all-too-familiar – I recognise them from my own school, even some of my own friendships. I could point out their personalities in a year group photo – she would be a Nancy, she would be a Georgia, myself a likely Heidi or Jenny. I can also see how in the course of my teens and twenties, I’ve tried on similar coats, attempted to be a “Cool Girl”. And so despite recognising how awful and entitled the character are, I still found myself giggling at some cruel remark or hapless demonstration. I still sympathised with them. I still ended up caught out by Reid’s humour.
I’m sure the accolades will role in. Comparisons will invariably be made to Mean Girls and Gone Girl. Those comparisons are well-deserved.
But Perfect Liars isn’t good because it’s like this or similar to that.
It’s good because it takes the domestic noir, then goes about subverting and upending the tropes and stereotypes. Fastidious detail and the use of multiple points of view keep the story taut and fast-paced. The characters become scathing portraits of modern femininity and success. The plot is dark and twisty and hilarious and brilliantly self-conscious. And maybe I’m wrong, but reading it there’s a feeling that Reid had fun writing this.
Perfect Liars is an ode to the domestic noir genre. It is also a playful indictment.
Come 2020, I’m sure we’ll be calling books “the new Perfect Liars“. And I very much encourage all of you to pre-order now.
Perfect Liars by Rebecca Reid is released on 21st February 2019. It is available for pre-order on Amazon in Paperback (£7.99), on Kindle (£4.99), and Audible (£10.39).