Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the more popular and appealing contexts for a crime novel is the small town where everyone knows everyone, and where things are only idyllic on the surface. Such places can hide dark secrets, and that offers lots of possibility for suspense and tension. Let’s take a look at that sort of novel today, and turn the spotlight on Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.
As the story begins, it’s Trivia Night at Piriwee Public School, on Piriwee Peninsula, near Sydney. The event is intended as both a fun evening and a fundraiser for the school, so that Smart Boards can be provided for the classrooms. The hors d’oeuvres don’t arrive on time, and everyone drinks more than is judicious with no food to go along with it. The alcohol fuels conflicts, and the evening ends tragically. The police begin an investigation, and we begin to learn a bit about the people involved.
The novel then takes the reader back six months, and tells what happened in Piriwee Beach that led to the events of Trivia Night. As the story unfolds, we follow the lives of three families, all of whom have children enrolled in Piriwee Public’s Kindergarten class.
One family consists of Madeline Mackenzie, her second husband Ed, and their children Fred and Chloe. There’s also Madeline’s daughter, Abigail, whose father, Nathan, has recently remarried. Another family is the White family: Perry, his wife Celeste, and their twin sons Max and Josh. The third is Jane Chapman and her son, Ziggy. All three families are in different socioeconomic situations, have different sorts of dynamics and so on. But each has at least one child in the same class. And soon, Madeline, Celeste, and Jane become friends.
Trouble begins for Jane when one of the most influential ‘school mums,’ Renata Klein, accuses Ziggy of bullying her daughter Amabella. Ziggy claims that he’s not responsible, but Renata has a lot of sway, and before long, most people believe her. Celeste and Madeline don’t, though, so one plot thread of this novel follows the escalating conflict between the ‘Renata camp,’ and the ‘Jane/Madeline/Celeste’ camp.
In the meantime, each woman is facing other challenges. Madeline’s fourteen-year-old daughter, Abigail, has decided to move in with her father and his new wife, Bonnie (who, incidentally, also have a child in the Kindergarten). Jane has to cope with the outright hostility she faces at the school, not to mention the fact that several of Ziggy’s classmates are being told to avoid him, and that they’re not allowed to play with him. And Celeste has her own home-front issues.
The school-related and personal plot threads come together one fateful night. All of the simmering tension comes to a boil, so to speak, and the result is a tragedy. Each of the three families is profoundly affected, and is going to have to find a way to deal with what happens.
One of the important elements in this novel is the difference between image and reality. On the surface, Celeste and Perry White are the king and queen of the school, and their sons two young princes. They’re extremely wealthy, and Celeste has to work to ensure she doesn’t make other people feel uncomfortable around so much money. They’re a good-looking family, too, whom a lot of people envy. But we learn that there’s a high price to pay for that sort of life. Madeline is smart, tough, and very much her own person, whom more than one person envies for her independence. She’s happily married, too. But she’s hardly perfect, and has her own sadness to hide. When Madeline and Celeste take Jane under their wings, they see her as vulnerable and shy. And she is. But there’s a lot about Jane that they don’t know at first.
As we learn more and more about the different characters, we see how their lives are much more intertwined than they imagined. Those inter-relationships are also an element of this novel. And the context (a small town) is consistent with that element. Everyone is connected in some way to everyone else. And when anything happens, gossip about it, however untrue, spreads very quickly.
Another element in the story is the school setting. There’s a definite social structure within the school, and anyone who’s ever been closely involved with a school will find it familiar. There is the group of (mostly) mothers, nicknamed the Blond Bobs, who run the school’s social life. They put together events, and do much of the work of parent activism:
‘The Blond Bobs rule the school. If you want to be on the PTA, you have to have a blond bob…it’s like a bylaw.’
There are also people often called Helicopter Parents. They’re the ones who insist that their children get special consideration, and sometimes even go to the school to, as the saying goes, fight their children’s fights. Trust me, such parents exist. And there’s the pettiness, cattiness and competitiveness you’d expect in such a group. Through it all moves the teacher, Rebecca Barnes, who’s trying to do the best job she can, and doesn’t want parental politics getting in the way.
And it’s the school politics that also add some lighter moments to the story. Those who’ve spent a lot of time at schools, and have served on the PTA, or a fundraising committee, will relate to that aspect of the novel. But this isn’t a comic, ‘frothy’ novel. The reality of what’s going on is very sad at times.
For example, the element of bullying and its impact also plays an important role in the novel. Bullying is a serious issue, and it has lasting and sometimes tragic consequences. Moriarty explores the way bullying can occur, how it may be learned, who’s affected, and how different people respond to it.
Big Little Lies is the story of three families and the way their lives intersect at the beginning of one fateful school year. It explores the lies we tell ourselves and others, and shows the consequences of bullying for everyone involved. But what’s your view? Have you read Big Little Lies? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday, 29 August/Tuesday, 30 August – The Last Child – John Hart
Monday, 5 September/Tuesday, 6 September – The Last Act of All – Aline Templeton
Monday, 12 September/Tuesday, 13 September – Sister Pelagia and the White Bulldog – Boris Akunin