The intrigue starts at the title. Lies are, by their nature, used to deceive, to cheat, to hoodwink. Therefore, how can a lie be the kindest thing? This is what forms the intriguing structure of the book. How can things so diametrically opposed coexist without destroying the people whose lives that they touch? With mystery writer’s skill, Nancy Johnson’s sensitive telling of racial dynamics, sexual liaisons, generational differences and parenting styles intersperse themselves into what seems like a family saga in “The Kindest Lie.”
Johnson breaks the rules for that genre of writing. This is not a telling of a rich family’s attempt at building a dynasty or a woefully dysfunctional family struggling to survive. This is a Black family based in a small Indiana town. It is a place where Black and white have lived side-by-side but not together for generations because a factory provided jobs enough to give good lives to all. Now, with the closing of the factory, people have plunged from middle-class comfort into the abject poverty of many Rust Belt towns. In opposition to the factory burg, the story starts in Chicago, with a young, successful upper-middle-class married couple, whose connection to the town is the wife’s family.
On the night that Barack Obama is elected president, fissures in the marriage show that are related to the lie. With layer after layer of what the lie is and why, we find that a few characters know the lie and tell it at different times, for good and bad reasons, making family dynamics fray or revamp. To quote the main character, “reflecting on these slights years later seemed small and petty. There is no fairness scale that could right the wrongs from childhood.”
With relationships crossing racial and economic lines you might think you are reading a romance novel, wrapped in Black women’s fiction or a camouflaged thriller. It is none of these, but a mix of all these styles, making a satisfying read for a potentially wide swath of people.
It’s Nancy Johnson’s debut novel, but we’ve heard her voice anonymously in the past decade through her writing for network television, where she has been nominated for two Emmys. (She’s won numerous Associated Press and Society of Professional Journalists awards as well.) Born and raised on the city’s South Side, educated at Northwestern University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, this will not be the only book we get from her, and hurray for that.
The Kindest Lie
By Nancy Johnson
HarperCollins, 336 pages
L. D. Barnes writes mystery, historical fiction and poetry. She is working on the second novel in her Chicago Street Crime series while living on the far south side. Barnes is a member of FLOW (For Love of Writing), Longwood Writers Guild and Mystery Writers of America. She performs locally.