"My name is Amber Reynolds. There are three things you should know about me:
1. I'm in a coma.
2. My husband doesn't love me anymore.
3. Sometimes I lie."
This is how Alice Feeney's debut novel, Sometimes I Lie, starts. And fans of psychological thrillers won't be able to stop reading after that.
Amber's story is told nonlinearly, in three different time periods: Now, Then (the week leading up to the present) and Before (diary entries from about 15 years earlier). As the book opens, Amber's awareness is returning. She realizes she's lying in a bed and can feel the light behind her eyes, but can't open them or figure out at first where she is or how she got there. She does know her name, that she's 35 years old and is married to Paul.
She hears two women discussing how they have no idea who she is. She shouts her name at them, but the women act as if she has said nothing. That's when she realizes she's in a coma.
Amber can't communicate with the other characters, but she can narrate her story because she can hear what's going on around her. Not that anything makes sense to her. The doctor asks Paul if Amber is the type of person who'd harm herself--what? Her sister, Claire, asks Paul what happened to his hand--what's wrong with it? When the two start arguing and Paul says Amber warned him not to trust Claire, Amber has no idea what he's talking about.
Feeney doesn't explain everything right away, of course. She takes readers back a week, to when Amber is working at a radio station and things with Paul aren't going well. A respected author, he is struggling with his latest book and has been moody and distant. Except with Claire.
Amber's sister lives nearby and has a habit of dropping by with no advance notice, but Paul always seems to welcome Claire's company and the two get along just fine without Amber. One day, Amber bumps into a handsome former boyfriend and contemplates accepting his invitation to meet and catch up. After all, would Paul even notice?
The diaries from 1991 and 1992, also in first-person POV, are about a girl named Taylor who is unpopular and bullied in school. Taylor's connection to current events are unclear at first, and when the answers are finally revealed, they'll likely surprise readers.
The Now and Then chapters are most engrossing due to their sense of urgency. In the now, Amber might be aware of her surroundings, but if she hears or senses something malicious, there is nothing she can do about it. Her vulnerability and helplessness are terrifying. As if that's not enough, Amber keeps seeing in her head "a little girl wearing a pink, fluffy dressing gown in the middle of the road. She's singing. Twinkle twinkle little star." More like creepy, creepy, little girl.
While reading about Then, one can't help being filled with dread, knowing Amber is speeding toward an unknown catastrophe. Bad luck befalls her, but readers will think, You still haven't hit the Big One yet.
As immobile as Amber is for much of the story, Feeney manages to keep the pace at a fast clip. Her crisp prose is packed with acute observations. During an uncomfortable situation at work, Amber puts on a fake smile, "the label still attached so I can return it when I'm done." While comatose, Amber thinks, "I’ve been returned to my factory settings as a human being, rather than a human doing." Recalling her wedding day, she notes it was a small ceremony because she's never had many friends. "Everyone you meet is inevitably flawed.... I don't avoid broken people because I think I'm better than them. I just don't like looking at my own reflection."
That unflinching self-awareness is what makes Amber an engaging protagonist. She knows she's flawed but does the best she can with what she has. She doesn't let herself off the hook when she makes mistakes, but refuses to wallow in self-pity, too. Paul will keep readers guessing about whether he's a good guy or a rotten egg. Claire, too, is somewhat of a cipher. She visits Amber in the hospital every day and is extremely supportive even when her sister isn't in a coma, so why did Amber warn Paul not to trust her?
Readers who find alternating timelines challenging need not worry--Feeney won't let you lose the threads before she ties them together. Sometimes I Lie is meticulously plotted, deliciously twisty and gripping to the very end. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis