First published by The Sydney Morning Herald on 3 October 2014
Lying is an art form; there's no doubt about it. But is it a gift some are born with, or a skill they mimic and eventually perfect? Knotty concepts such as this one are offered for unravelling in Alexandra Cameron's central character Rachael, a slightly eerie adolescent.
As far as creepy teens in literature go (Lionel Shriver's Kevin being on the extreme end of the spectrum), Rachael is more confused narcissist than genuine sociopath. Although she is more talented and beautiful than other girls her age, she is dangerously egocentric.
The narration is split fairly evenly between each of Rachael's parents Camille and Wolfe (this leaves the inner workings of Rachael herself appropriately out of reach for the reader). As Rachael becomes the subject of a sexual misconduct scandal, her parents must choose between consoling their daughter and suspecting her of malicious lies. This precarious balancing act puts them both on edge and their marriage under strain.
Camille's reaction is the more nuanced of the two: in Rachael, she sees her own deceptive tendencies in full and frightening bloom. Heavy-handed Aussie surfing vernacular aside, Wolfe is a likeable, protective dad. He is baffled by his daughter's predicament and is left to deal with the aftermath of her actions when she and Camille flee to France, in hopes that Rachael will be admitted to a prestigious Parisian art school, and where secrets from Camille's own childhood reveal uncomfortable similarities, rivalries even, between mother and daughter.
In earlier chapters, the prose is let down by some clunky metaphors, unconvincing dialogue and imagery that doesn't quite work. Camille works as an art historian and, while this forms the basis of a useful sub plot, the research is a little overexposed and self-conscious.
The writing improves in later chapters, for example when it confidently tackles the complexities of Rachael's cold manipulation and Camille's violent fantasies. There is some lovely scene building here and the writing shows more confidence, especially in the Camille sections.
What Cameron also manages decidedly well, is the ambiguity of Rachael; the reader's own verdict is at the mercy of Camille's adoration, Wolfe's confusion, the misguided wrath of local parents and, for a satisfying chunk of the story, we cannot be certain of her guilt, her innocence, or the extent of betrayal. However, for a story as potentially unsettling as this one, the tension is more or less absent. The more we come to know about Rachael, the more apparent it becomes that she will remain protected from the consequences of her actions. In fact, the character most affected by the scandal is the accused high school teacher, and we are not given much of an opportunity to develop empathy for him. So aside from the possible breakdown of a marriage it is difficult to root for, the stakes are just not very high.
In addition to the central narrative, the book tackles some other quandaries with a lighter touch that the sex scandal may have benefited from. For example: what is genius? Where does it come from? Is it dangerous if untamed? Why do we lie? How is it that we come to disappoint our families and why do we continue to seek their approval after they have all but turned their backs?
Ultimately this novel leaves the impression of a missed opportunity. The writer can write, the concepts are intriguing (if well-trodden) but it's a couple of edits away from being gripping.