A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself by Peter Ho Davies

Lie Someone Told YouA few years ago I read Davies’ novel The Fortunes and knew that I had found a brilliant writer to follow. In four unconnected chronological sections, Davies told the history of the Chinese in America with the most poignant stories imaginable. It was a tour de force of making the historical, personal in the vein of Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men and The Woman Warrior.

In his new and very different novel, A Lie Someone Told You About Yourself, Davies tells a universal but very twenty-first century story. A young couple make the difficult decision to abort a baby who may have major congenital difficulties. It’s a wrenching decision that haunts their lives but may have driven them closer together. They go on to conceive a second child who turns out to have developmental difficulties but not the kind that show up in tests during pregnancy. The child may well be autistic; a doctor describes him as “2e,” doubly exceptional: brilliant and difficult. The possibility of an autism diagnosis hangs over the parents, but they put off the certainty that could come with testing. What difference would it make? They are doing their best to love and nurture their difficult child as he is.

I read this short book in two sittings, unable to put it down for long, not because of the plot, of which there is very little, but because the writing is perfectly attuned to the parents’ feelings. The father narrates and we never learn his name, his wife’s name, or their son’s name. The book consists mostly of dialogue between the husband and wife along with the husband’s thoughts. The reader sees the son only from a distance, watches how his life affects his parents. It’s a beautiful, moving novel about chance and choices. The paradox of Schrodinger’s cat enters the text several times, emphasizing the random and contingent nature of our lives, the way not-knowing shapes us.

Just before I read the book I listened to an interview with Davies on the podcast First Draft: A Dialogue on Writing. As I expected, Davies’ insights into the novel and its conception were enlightening. He talked about how the narrator is haunted by uncertainty and how the many white spaces in the book were designed to provide space for readers to enter the page with their own uncertainties and thoughts about chance. It’s a thoughtful and gripping novel.

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