A review by figwhite
Liar, Dreamer, Thief by Maria Dong

hopeful mysterious fast-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? A mix
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Diverse cast of characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

5.0

Maria Dong's debut Liar, Dreamer, Thief is one of those books that demand a review. I always intend to write reviews, but putting aside other priorities to write a review requires much more effort than simply gushing about books privately or giving recommendations as a librarian. But this book is special and I hope to see Dong's name on as many shelves as Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakami – people whose work Liar, Dreamer, Thief brings to mind for its twisting mystery and the dream-like quality of the main character’s world. 

Let me start off by saying that as a debut, it’s a great novel to get that big push into bookstores and libraries. While Dong has published fiction elsewhere, this is her grand entrance, and very few authors debut with a book with as much heart that lies at the center of Liar, Dreamer, Thief

It’s easy to talk about books chronologically by mapping out plot and character development, but Liar, Dreamer, Thief, despite the mystery plot, builds not only chronologically as we follow one clue to the next, but also along a Z-axis. It builds outwardly and has readers interacting with the story as presented through interwoven layers of mental illness and the experiences of a struggling, working class second-gen Korean American lesbian. Two things though; first: I don’t recall if Katrina Kim, our main character, explicitly says she’s a lesbian, but her sexuality is at least predominately sapphic; and second: I’m very much an outsider reading about a Korean American character with intersecting identities, struggling with mental health, academic and professional expectations, and shame – so while I’m aware that these are huge themes of the novel, I don’t feel qualified to engage with it extensively or on this platform. I will say, though, that the novel does heavily explore with these themes but they are not the driving force behind the plot of the book, but rather an underlying reality that colors the relationship the character has with her sense of self and her estranged family. 

Now, I mention mental illness, and Katrina does clearly exhibit symptoms of various mental illnesses, but in addition to that, she interacts with her world through a lens largely informed by a children’s book that spoke to her when she was young. Due to this, her apartment often changes into a forest setting and those people that she regularly interacts with have anthropomorphic analogs in her imaginings. Despite talking about this from this very objective, pragmatic point-of-view, this imagined world is no less real, either for Katrina or for the novel itself. 

It’s this world, in fact, that allows her to navigate the more grounded physical world of Grand Station, IL, and it’s this world, too, that allows readers to meet Katrina half-way when it comes to her paranoia, her assumptions, and what could otherwise be seen as unfounded conclusions. 

There are some aspects of the book that feel so real that it’s uncomfortable. The fractal third parties used by private healthcare companies in a Brazil-style machine of bureaucratic monotony, the masked joy of work-filtered friendships, the innate disconnect between people in a regimented work environment where the work itself is easy but the implications of the work being done is what’s crushing soul after soul. It’s this discomfort, though, that makes me yearn for Katrina’s Kitchen Door World, because while I haven’t worked this job (though I have a friend that has worked this exact fucking job), I get it. We weren’t made for this, and we all have our routines in place to make it more bearable. And for some people the “this” and the “it” in that last sentence are jobs, sometimes they’re simply the world we’ve been abandoned in, often without the resources and skills to thrive. 

The one complaint I have about the book is hardly a complaint: I desperately wish that there was a companion Mi-Hee and the Mirror-Man book. But maybe “Wow, I wish this book had another book” is too much to ask. 

I mentioned Neil Gaiman and Haruki Murakami, but I would also recommend this to fans of Seanan McGuire’s work, especially the more fantastical Wayward Children series. The fantastical elements really bring the novel to life, and tell so much more about the characters than how they interact in their more mundane world. 

This was just a great book that I highly recommend. It was a quick read with a memorable central character, and truly feels like a novel both for and about those adults whose real, private worlds are just a little more fantastical than others. 

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