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Wednesday, July 29, 2009

THE LIE by O.H. Bennett

A teenager in trouble will often find it easier to lie when confronted with a bad situation. When Terrell Matheus accidentally shoots and kills his older brother Lawrence, his instinct is to lie. He tells his parents and the police that a truck with white boys accosted Lawrence on the front porch of their home and shot and killed him.

So begins The Lie, the powerful debut novel by O.H. Bennett. The African- American Matheus family moved from the projects to a nice home in a middle class neighborhood in Evansville, Indiana. Mom and Dad both work full-time jobs, the boys go to a good high school.

The story is set in the 1970's, but if I didn't read that in the book summary, I might not have known that. The situation is one that could be seen on the nightly news today, and there isn't much in the story that struck me as 1970s. The clothes, the language- it all seemed contemporary.

Terrell sticks to his story, somehow thinking that it will be less painful for his parents than the truth. Students at the high school lionize Lawrence, making him into a martyr. Tensions between blacks and whites rise in the community.

When Terrell's uncle believes he has found the men who killed his nephew, and the police find the evidence doesn't fit Terrell's version, his story unravels. Terrell's parents, destroyed by their older son's death, come undone when the truth of how he died is finally known.

The scene where Terrell is forced to confront his lie will leave the reader stricken. As a parent of two college aged sons, I related to the worst pain a mother can feel- one son causes the death of the other. Bennett writes with such power and emotion, it literally took my breath away.

Terrell's road to redemption is a long, difficult one. He has no friends, and his parents can't have him at home; he is a pariah. He forms a bond with his brother's girlfriend, a young woman with many problems of her own. Their fragile relationship is the one hopeful thing in his life.

Bennett captures the family dynamic; this is a family that could live down the street. The way in which the parents deal with the pain of their loss of both sons hit home for me. The relationship between the brothers- close when they are young, changing as they became teens, reflects the reality of many families.

The Lie will break your heart, and though it is not aimed at high school students, it would be a great book for them (especially young men) to read. It reminded me of George Pelecanos's The Turnaround, another powerful novel about race relations and how one lie can damage the lives of many people for years to come.

Rating 4 of 5 stars

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