Saturday, February 8, 2014

Book Review: "The First True Lie" by Marina Mander

Luca is a young boy living in Italy with his mother, who suffers from depression, and their cat, Blue. He has never known his father and doesn't quite understand where he went, so many of his classmates call him an orphan. Sometimes he and his mother have a typical relationship—they have fun, she nags him about getting up on time, taking a bath, doing his homework. But sometimes his mother is unable to cope with the world and locks herself in her bedroom for a day or two, but Luca is attuned to those moods.

"They say that for a child I'm extremely sensitive—whether or not they mean it as a compliment, I don't know. They say it with a smile, but there's something sad behind that nice smile that makes me think they haven't understood much of anything. I train myself to be sensitive and my antennae tune in on their own."

One morning, however, Luca's mother doesn't wake up. At first he thinks she has taken some of her pills, which often make her sleep deeply and not hear anything, but when he returns from school that day and sees she hasn't moved at all, he knows that she has died. And now, he truly is a "complete orphan," and he is sad that his love and his presence weren't enough to keep his mother alive. But beyond that, he fears that when his mother's death is discovered they'll put him in an orphanage, a horrible place where you aren't encouraged to be yourself or be free, and they'll separate him from Blue.

"This is terrible. I don't want to go. I don't want to be a complete orphan. Anything else would be better. Better to say that Mama's left. Or else say nothing and act like it doesn't matter. Better to find a way to make do. It can't be that difficult. Better to try to survive. Better to keep it a secret and smile. Better to use my imagination, to make myself come up with something special. Better to hope it will all just be over soon."

At first, like many young children who discover they're suddenly without adult supervision, Luca enjoys the freedom of eating only junk food, of leaving their apartment a mess, and staying up as late as he can. But he knows he must pretend to the outside world that everything is fine. He tries not to act overly sad or even overly happy—he doesn't want anyone to question his behavior, which might lead them to want to talk to his mother. He figures out how to go the grocery store and act like he belongs there, to pass his mother off as busy at work or running late so people don't encounter her, all while he has all the windows to her bedroom open to combat the increasing smell of decomposition.

The First True Lie is a heartbreaking story of one boy's courage and ingenuity in the face of what he knows is inevitable. Luca is a tremendously endearing narrator—smart and imaginative, impish and mischievous. His sensitivity in recognizing his mother's moods and feeling for her even if he doesn't understand them is moving, as is his fervent desire to stay in his home with his cat. While obviously not every young child could keep up the subterfuge (and it's clearly a measure of how much his mother has disconnected from the world), you find yourself rooting for him to succeed.

This was a tremendously compelling book, because you want to know what happens to Luca. Its narrative is at times a little disjointed and peppered with curses, much as dialogue with a young boy might be. But you are moved, and even impressed, by Luca's bravery.

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