It’s hard to miss Karen McManus’ books in the YA section of your local bookshop. With their distinctive minimalist covers, they stand out. McManus has now written five books, including One of Us is Lying – her 2017 release and most popular book so far, with over 450,000 ratings on Goodreads. Its sequel, One of Us is Next, was released in 2020.
One of Us is Lying is sometimes referred to as a mix of The Breakfast Club and Gossip Girl. Each of the four main characters represent archetypes: there’s Bronwyn, the ‘geek’; Nate, the ‘criminal’; Cooper, the ‘jock’; and Addy, the popular ‘princess’. These four point-of-view characters are each suspected of murdering Simon, the scathing voice behind ‘About That’, a gossip app which regularly shares Bayview High’s darkest secrets.
An intriguing mystery? Sure. A playful dismantling of high school archetypes? Absolutely.
But I have one big problem with One of Us is Lying. And it has to do with Simon’s death. So, spoilers below.
The issue with Simon’s death
Near the end of the book, the mystery is solved – we learn how Simon died. It was suicide.
Simon orchestrated his own death via allergic reaction as a sort of twisted revenge upon Bronwyn, Nate, Cooper and Addy, who he viewed as enemies and rivals. All four characters had a motive to kill Simon – and their secrets are revealed as the story progresses. But ultimately they are innocent. Other students, Jake and Janae, helped Simon orchestrate his own death and frame the others.
There are many reasons why people choose to end their own lives. For example, many people want to end the suffering that they are experiencing, such as feelings of hopelessness and fear. Others feel like they are a burden on the people around them. Some people want to feel at peace. And sometimes we just don’t know why people choose suicide – though the mental health community often claims that suicide is preventable, sometimes there are no clear warning signs or reasons identified by family and friends.
In real life, revenge rarely comes into the narrative. Of course, there are instances where people have died by suicide in order to communicate with others in some way – or they are influenced by feelings of anger. Simon is undoubtedly a callous character; he gets a sick sense of pleasure in publicly humiliating others. Ultimately, he is an unhappy teenager, experiencing a deep sense of rage, loneliness and resentment. So I acknowledge that this act makes sense for his character, though it is deeply troubling.
But in real life, a lot of people assume that suicide is a form of revenge and manipulation. A way to punish others. They call suicide selfish, and cannot believe someone would hurt others that way. This means that we often don’t treat suicide attempt survivors with the empathy they deserve, or take threats seriously.
This means that people who are experiencing suicidal thoughts don’t always get the help they need.
Another ‘Thirteen Reasons Why’?
When reading the end of One of Us is Lying, I couldn’t help but think of Hannah’s suicide in Thirteen Reasons Why, another YA book-turned-TV show.
Thirteen Reasons Why was a gigantic hit for Netflix. And it sparked a wave of controversy that inspired countless think-pieces, panic from mental health organisations, and even a flurry of academic research into its impact.
Though some argued that Thirteen Reasons Why raised awareness and treated its characters with empathy, others were concerned about glamorizing suicide. Indeed, many commentators argued that Hannah’s death – as another instance of suicide-as-revenge – would lead to misunderstandings about teenage suicide. Sadly, there have been instances of people copying Hannah’s cassette tape suicide notes.
Perhaps this is why the TV series decided to change the ending. In the Peacock original series, we learn that it was Jake who helped Simon ‘fake his own assassination’ – still to punish the Bayview Four. Simon never actually intended to end his own life. Jake removed the EpiPens, meaning Simon couldn’t be saved.
Though I’m usually the type to cringe at major changes from book to TV, I think this change made sense (though adding an extra layer of drama). Instead of risking another suicide-as-revenge controversy, this new ending makes the story about a murder rather than a suicide. It shifts blame to Jake and highlights his manipulative nature, and made me reflect on how vulnerable Simon must have been around the time of his death.
The bottom line
Turning off the critical part of my mind, I actually enjoyed reading One of Us is Lying. It was an entertaining story, the mystery had me hooked, and I enjoyed all four point of view characters. I also think there were some interesting elements around representation of teenage drug dealing and drug use, and a character with bipolar disorder who is treated reasonably well. But the ending left a bitter aftertaste.
As we discussed in our Thirteen Reasons Why podcast episode, we’re not against the idea of tragedy in fiction. Not every story needs a happy ending, or to be injected with false optimism about the realities of living with suicidal ideation. I also am fine with stories having villains!
But I have a problem with this being such a dominant narrative. There is a risk that comes with highlighting suicide-as-revenge stories, or villains using suicide as a tool to get what they want.
We need more stories which treat people who contemplate, attempt, or die by suicide in a compassionate way. We need more stories that unravel the links between suicidal ideation, trauma, and mental health issues, and explore how the inequity of access to treatment, care, and appropriate crisis intervention can impact on someone’s suicidal ideation.
Personally, I’d be happy to scrap the suicide-as-revenge trope.