I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. I had an idea of what it was about and I was certainly curious. I haven’t seen the film although I would now like to see how it was done. I expected to find a narrative that was punctuated by the girls’ suicides, at regular intervals, keeping the reader involved. However, this book is much cleverer than that.
The narrative voice is one of the most interesting I have come across. It is ostensibly first person although ‘I’ is never used. It is written from the perspective of a ‘we’, the group of adolescent boys who are so fascinated by the Lisbon girls. This gives the voice a strange anonymity. Although lots of boys are named, give opinions and interact with the Lisbon girls, the narrator is not named. The voice is collective. This gives the story an universal feel. As if the boys represent all boys who are understandably fascinated by the teenage girls in their social circle. While the suicides are extreme, the lack of understanding between the boys and the Lisbon girls comes to represent the difficulties of communication between the sexes at this awkward time of life.
The first suicide occurs early in the novel and to my mind is the most devastating. The suspense that follows is even greater than if there had been a suicide every few chapters. I will not give away the ending but I could not have predicted how it would go. All the narrative is directed towards understanding the suicides of the Lisbon girls. However, the reader does not yet have the details of the rest of the suicides and so they are trying to understand something ephemeral, not quite real.
To my mind, the novel is about the painful transition from adolescence into adulthood. In this way, the deaths of the girls represent the death of childhood. Many of the boys who are visited twenty years on are past their prime, having had their best moments early in life. The girls have avoided the disappointment of life by taking control early on and killing themselves. They do not have to see the inevitable decay that begins to destroy the archive of their stuff that the boys keep. They escape the ageing process and instead remain forever beautiful and mysterious.
The reader is placed in the voyeuristic position of the boys who watch and note and obsess. The Lisbon girls are the unreadable difficult novel that they cannot understand. The girls are unknowable and the ordinariness of their deaths is baffling. Even with all the clues at their fingertips, understanding is not possible. This is perhaps the real tragedy. Not simply the girls suicides but the fact that whatever message they intended to send was lost in translation.