Disclaimer: This photo is from the airport when I left for Vietnam 6 days ago and this post is a raw, lengthy book review.
It’s 4:02PM on 11 December, a chilly Thursday in Hanoi, Vietnam– my back hurts from the uncomfortable posture I have been in for the past hour in the bumpy van ride on the roads that wind through the city. We are heading back to the boutique hotel (where we have humbly found ourselves well-hosted for the past 4 days) from the landfill we visited earlier today, a good 2 hours’ ride away. Every half an hour I have looked up to catch a glimpse of where we are going, watching the landscape shift and morph from the large open fields dotted with buffaloes and rural dilapidated houses, into the buildings that look a couple of decades’ work away from becoming the HDB blocks that I am familiar with back in Singapore. The cables hang loosely across the lamp posts and the drivers on the roads honk at one another as if they are saying ‘hi’, intertwining with the pedestrians who cross wherever and whenever they’d like: if this were a dance floor, I’d say all the vehicles and pedestrians are dancers, each showing off their fancy freestyle, just brushing past each other. This reminds me of Cambodia.
At this point, I have just finished reading my first fiction book in a long time, titled Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty. And before this overwhelming feeling: a mix of satisfaction, confusion and revelation all at once, washes away with the tide of time, this post is dedicated to my newfound admiration toward Liane Moriarty and to the praise I have towards the meaningful lessons learned from a roller coaster read like this one.
This was about the politics amongst parents whose 5-year-old children transform these adults into protective, almost irrational beings whose actions are driven by their love and shaped by their past. This was also about the secrets, more specifically, of marriage– an unfamiliar concept for me that I have always wished to idealize and fantasize about. When the blurb of this book explained that Big Little Lies was one about “dangerous little lies we tell ourselves to survive”, I didn’t quite comprehend; but with the accelerated discoveries and piecing together of chronological information towards the end of the whodunnit, I could think of no better way for Liane Moriarty to have depicted the danger derived from the truth left unsaid (or said) and the lies that are so much more convenient to be told, compared to the truth. The unique style of the story-writing was one that was transparent with the readers about the characters’ thoughts and motivations more than their decisions and actions. Internal more than external. It was with the spelling out of every internal struggle experienced by the characters that my empathy toward their predicament was heightened– in every dilemma, every tragedy, accident and every fear. I applaud the author for her brilliant writing that brought the characters to life with a form of depth that made me see how real the imperfection of every person, especially a parent, could be: considering this was an adult caught in the frenzies of the complicated thing called ‘marriage’ and the demands of the role we hold with high regard also known as ‘a parent’.
For the lessons that I have learned from these characters that I have sworn at or loved to death, cried with and consoled in my head over the course of this read, this one’s for the truth in the “dangerous little lies we tell ourselves to survive”. And allow me to share these new insight through quotes from the character’s thoughts:
‘She felt something strange happening when she talked to people in groups. She couldn’t quite remember how to be. She’d find herself thinking: Did I just laugh too loudly? Did I forget to laugh? Did I just repeat myself?’ The most common of all lies we tell appear to be the one about who we are or who we hope to be, because in groups and crowds it is a challenge to be completely yourself and seek acceptance and complete understanding. But the truth, I suppose, is that no matter how hard you try to control the first impression you give to people, the diverse kinds of judgement they can make about you are almost infinite and definitely uncontrollable. So maybe it’s more about whether we want to feel the comfort we deserve while being in a group or the uncomfortable aftermath where your presence in a social gathering was a practical lie.
‘Wealth was an embarrassing medical condition you shouldn’t talk about.’ This was in the context of parent politics in the book, but I realised that if we drew a parallel to our college politics in reality, it was equally ridiculous as some consider hard work as ‘an embarrassing medical condition you shouldn’t talk about’ just because it made people feel bad about not putting in ‘sufficient’ effort in achieving the results that they hoped for. Which is ridiculous. Who even decided what was ‘sufficient’ anyway?
‘All sleeping children were beautiful.’ thought a parent as she considered the possibility of her child being the bully he had been accused to be. I am reminded for the times I worked closely with children, and I remember my favourite part of that was the fact that I knew as naughty as they could be, they would rarely, almost never, be evil. For the malicious thoughts and vicious intentions only come later as they piece together the examples set by their role models and the lessons learned from their cartoon channels. I’d like to constantly remind myself that the pure, kind and good person that I began as (that clean slate, white angel) just as every other child, am being constantly shaped by my experiences– I’d like very much for myself to be in control of these changes.
‘Did anyone really know their child? Your child was a little stranger, constantly changing, disappearing and reintroducing himself to you.’ This thought surprised me because I realise the missing piece in the empathy I thought I had toward my parents’ concern for me was the understanding that as we trod down this path of life and constantly pick up new skills, insight and thoughts, there is every reason for the insecurity of our parents– the idea that they may not know who their child has become, or how different we are from the child they once knew ‘for sure’.
‘We are not all beautiful, just like we’re not all musical, and that’s fine.’ This idea is one that I have preached over and over, but just as the character in the book did, I was prompted to rethink if I truly, deeply, absolutely, believed that it was OK. Am I really bought into the idea that we’re not all beautiful inside nor out? That I, myself could be less good inside than I think, and I am able to come to terms with that without attaching value to my external ‘beauty’? I am not so sure yet. And if I imagine myself on the streets judging passersby in the millisecond, do I really face less pretty girls and less handsome boys the same way as those who are absolutely stunning? I doubt so.
The most cheesy, yet deepest lesson learned would be that ‘Lies get complicated.’ and the more of it you tell, the more of it you have to remember. In the narrative of Big Little Lies, the entire climax of the story was built on the countless lies told to protect truths deemed more valuable than transparency and honesty. Yet the complications that proceeded and the death that took place almost inconsequent of the build-up from these lies, were all testament to the importance of taking courage to be open with truths and not make assumptions. Easier said that done. Ironically, I found myself tearing up in the last few chapters, where the parents earlier (and almost throughout the entire book) were at loggerheads, found unity in a common truth they decided to protect together, by telling lies. While this read has helped me reach the above conclusions and derive the above mentioned lessons, I remain in a dilemma of where the line between truth and lie is, and how the balance between the two is found.
There is so much to think about and I have barely talked about the issue of domestic violence that was raised as well. But here’s where I’ll stop as the van slows down amidst the traffic jam that welcomes us into the neighbourhood where our hotel resides. I’m feeling nauseous from the thinking, reading and typing; and my nose is blocked from the chilly air-con as if the fumes from the vehicles seeping through the gap above the window is not enough to confuse my respiratory system. I think I’m going to be sick. Oh, calamity!