Katie Burrelli, the protagonist of Michelle Boyajian’s Lies of the Heart, didn’t have the most satisfying life even before the death of her husband. She’s the kind of woman who has always seen herself as second best; not as pretty as her beautiful sister Dana, not as beloved by their parents, not as popular as her friends. Then she meets Nick while he’s fishing for clams in their native Rhode Island. They marry, and he becomes a speech therapist for developmentally challenged people while she becomes, halfheartedly, a documentary filmmaker.
Then Jerry, one of Nick’s clients, murders him. No one can explain why, least of all Jerry, a grown man with the I.Q. and comprehension of a child, who’d come to view Katie and Nick as surrogate parents. Jerry had grown so close to the Burrellis that they gave him his own room in their house, an act that, though well meant, was a tragic mistake.
The murder and the trial, which take up most of the book, send Katie into a spiral of anger and grief. She’s angry with her family, her friends, Nick’s coworkers; that they all seem to be on Jerry’s side enrages both her and the reader, until we learn better. Over the course of the book we also learn that Katie’s marriage to Nick, like everything else in her life, wasn’t as idyllic as she would have liked it to be. Though they passionately loved each other, Nick—handsome, talented and a bit self-pitying—could be cruel to her, and Katie was an expert at constructing maddening little head games—some of which involved innocent Jerry.
Boyajian’s writing style is deeply sensuous, even startling. The book begins with Katie imagining the path the bullet took through her husband’s brain, and the final snuffing of his consciousness. The author conveys Katie’s inability to communicate with people around her by having nearly everyone stutter, stop in mid-sentence, mumble and evade. Jerry’s own frustrations with language lead to rages Katie’s lawyer tries to use against him. The exception to this reticence is Katie’s dad, who talks too much, and at the top of his lungs; he’s not quite comic relief. We’re not surprised to learn that Katie can’t quite finish the film she’s making about two Holocaust survivors, a man and woman who have found peace and deep love despite the horrors they endured. Katie learns, just in time, that the Cohens have much to teach her about compassion and tolerance.
Lies of the Heart is a remarkable debut novel. We can only hope to hear much more from Michelle Boyajian.