Book Club: Everything is Lies, Helen Callaghan

Is a bad family still worth fighting for?

Everything is Lies is the second novel of New York Times bestseller Helen Callaghan. It’s marketed as a psychological thriller, with essences of ‘modern female protagonist’ thrown in. I have to say, that despite the irritable character database, it’s an enthralling novel that provokes a retake on family values, questioning if a future is worthwhile when at the expense of yourself.
The novel’s succinct take on the destructive nature of an all-encompassing cult is refreshing, aggravating and strangely, somehow entirely relatable. It’s a cool, hard way of looking at relationships and the distortion of perception, often introduced through manipulative means. Many characters epitomise the negative qualities that are so often hidden from those who love them, and as a reader, viewing from this perspective is enlightening.   

The novel follows the events of Sophia MacKenzie, a millennial woman who is knee-deep in the first weeks of her new job at a large architectural firm. Within the first chapter, we’re sidled in on a difficult relationship with her mother, a near miss sleeping with a married man and the fact that she’s moved away from her parents to London, and she “likes it that way.” Cue the drama: her mother Nina calls, worried, urgent. Sophia rolls her eyes, assuring the reader that this happens constantly.
The next day, Sophia finds her mother dead, hanging in the back garden of Sophia’s childhood. Her father is critically injured nearby. The police report says it was a suicide and Sophia says no.
As the story unfolds, Nina’s secrets – all of them – begin to be unravelled in the form of her handwritten notebooks. A stunned Sophia learns of Morning Star, the cult-like home where Nina first found love. Aaron Kessler, the godlike figure who persuaded her to stay. Nina’s writing recaps the strange behaviour, continuous restrictions and then suddenly, peculiar rituals one of which results in a death. As the narrative becomes sinister, Sophia begins to search for those who she is sure is responsible, for her mother’s tragic murder.

The overarching film of distorted perception is salient at the least when it comes to Nina’s time at Morning Star. Lured in – or willingly romanced through her eyes – Nina follows Aaron Kessler, the famous musician with a peculiar interest in her, to his home at Morning Star. And she can’t, that is, won’t escape. Time and time again, she makes up her mind to leave. And yet, one interaction with Aaron, one fleeting glance of him, is all it takes to clamp the chains back on. Aaron, who to the reader comes across as a self-absorbed and malevolent being, is Nina’s prize of both lust and love. A devastatingly gorgeous and mysterious man who becomes very quickly, the entity of her purpose, even after he loses interest.
“I’d noticed, that the sunlight of his love was everyday becoming just a tiny smidgen harder to obtain. Vanishing, like the end of a rainbow into a hazy distance. Retreating as you walked towards it. He was sure of me now. He no longer had to work at seducing me. It was up to me to do the running.” [CH14] And still, Nina demonstrates along with other members, their utmost devotion to him.
While it is with complete clarity that the reader is able to define the pernicious behaviours of the controlling and contemptuous Aaron Kessler, Nina’s continued adoration of him is loud and defiant while being effervescently naïve. Understandable, but frustrating all the same. Like I said; relatable.
The unhinged perception Nina carries for Aaron is a troublesome point. For while it is certainly realistic for an insecure and passive girl to fall victim to an older and controlling person, it is without doubt a point of discomfort. It’s not right, it’s not warranted, and it’s certainly not going to end well. Nina of course, doesn’t know this. So we continue.

The manipulation displayed throughout Nina’s time at Morning Star, as part of Aaron’s Order of Ascendance, is gratuitous, ever-present and quiet in volume. Lucy, perhaps Aaron’s most loyal of followers, is a keen display of this. “Nina,” she constantly cries, at any sign of distress, “don’t worry,” she flings her arms around Nina’s small shoulders for the hundredth time, purring out reassurance and affection.
While Lucy’s motives are vague and relatively unimportant, the constant fictitious encouragement is again, tiring, as Nina falls victim to it, again and again. Nina slowly becomes increasingly numb toward the strangeness of Morning Star, and Lucy, along with other members, are firm in support of this.
It’s no surprise that Nina is unable to leave Morning Star, with her idolisation of Aaron and the constant pull of those she considers family. As a reader, the childlike ignorance of Nina is painful to observe. And yet, which one of us hasn’t been seventeen and in love making bad choices? The fact stings a little.

Nina’s debilitated time at Morning Star really poses the bigger question. Is our need to belong more important than our own morals, rights and even independence? Surely not, however it is repeated over and over in this story.
Sophia, for a change, follows her mother’s steps when it comes to her workplace. Bullied by a married man she refused to sleep with, Sophia is persistently belittled and disadvantaged in her job. She is unclear about why she continues on. She has no urgent financial need to speak of, her skills are not so niche that she would not find other work. In fact, it seems that the only reason she chooses to stay at her workplace of weeks, is that she apparently has cut off all friends outside of this environment. Is that it then? Sophia’s desire to belong in a workplace she associates with exceeds her moral value and sense of self? Again, this is frustrating, as well as, if we’re honest, just plain wrong. But from the position of Sophia would I think the same?

Nina of course, is a walking epitome of self-sacrifice to belong. Leaving behind everything; her family, her friends, her degree and following career, she settles in with a man and friends she knows little of, other than that she feels home. Stupid right? Right? Continually, Nina repeats how this is now her family, her everything. Even after it crumbles, she cries of heartbreak, not just for losing Aaron, but also the family she thought she had, regardless of the treatment she received.
It makes you wonder, doesn’t it, the way these characters are so willing to put their own needs and dignity aside to feel as if they are part of a greater purpose, a connected being.  The situations are bad; illegal even, and yet, they continue to advocate. It sounds ridiculous. Unreasonable. Wrong. And yet I cannot read the thoughts and feelings of these characters without hearing the whispers of rationality that come from small and prominent insecurities. We’ve all been there.

It’s a mouthful to absorb. There are so many negative effects from terrible decisions by multiple characters within the book. I haven’t even touched on Wolf, the rebellious and defiant wildcard character. It saddens me on a deeper level, to see the aftermath of ill-considered self-sacrifice, namely, the murder of Sophia’s mother. Is it really so important to belong? How much are we really willing to risk for it?
Everything is Lies delivers in all ways. It’s fast-paced, thrilling, and yet entirely thought-provoking in its execution. It opens us up early with tragedy, and then spends the rest of the novel slowly stitching into us, the resolute and yet blind actions of emotionally-driven people. More than you thought you’d get from an airport read, right?

Sincerely hope you enjoy this one too.

Bon x

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