Two eleven-year-old girls, best friends, fierce rivals, sisterly in their loyalty to one another, detour into the woods on their way home from school. Only one of them emerges. The journey to connect the events that unfolded on that fateful day makes up Myla Goldberg’s new novel, “The False Friend.”
Celia is a 30-something successful Performance Auditor for the Illinois Auditor General, living in Chicago with her boyfriend, Huck, a high school history teacher, and two beloved dogs. One day a spark of memory flares, and Celia begins to recall the events surrounding the disappearance of her best friend, Djuna Pearson, nearly twenty years prior. According to Celia’s version of events, she, Djuna, and their three other friends, Becky, Josie, and Leanne, eschewed their typical bus ride home to walk along the road by the woods; she and Djuna quarreled, Djuna ran into the woods with Celia chasing after. When she caught up with Djuna, she tells Huck, she witnessed Djuna fall as if disappearing into a sink hole or well. Celia returned to the other three girls and told them that she had seen Djuna get into a car with a stranger, a claim, she later tells her boyfriend, parents, and anyone who will listen, that was a lie. Faced with the sickening prospect of the role that Celia may have played in Djuna’s disappearance, Celia returns to her childhood home of Jensenville, New York to make amends. Only one problem remains: no one believes her admonition of guilt nor agrees with her version of events.
Wedged in between Celia’s troubled recollections and honest intentions is a deep mediation on the impacts of memory and the shifting perspective that comes with age and experience. Celia returns to a hometown ravaged by the recession where the American dream has extricated itself for more promising locations. The markers of her youth–the buildings along main street, the local high school– bear a sad, diminished quality, an affect shared by her aging parents. We learn that Celia is one of many types of young people who grew up in eroding towns across America: the type of person who flees this crumbling terrain, insulating themselves against their past with a college degree, a new job, a new life in a thriving city. Goldberg gives readers the distinct impression that despite Celia’s requisite trips home for the holidays, this is the first time she has actually been back to her hometown.
As she struggles to come to terms with the defining event of her childhood, Celia must also confront the reality of her aging parents, reconciling her ideas about their choices with their own remembrances of family history and family events. The specter of her waning romantic relationship clings to Celia the way the smell of the damp leaves in the woods on that day cling to her scent memory. Goldberg takes her readers into Celia’s quasi-dream state where she consistently chafes against her desire to preserve memory and to see truths.
Each person that Celia encounters connected with the events of Djuna’s disappearance contradict her narrative. Rendered in Goldberg’s exquisite, sparse prose, these interactions do more than illuminate a sequence of actions, they offer clues to uncovering Celia’s personal past, bearing pieces of evidence that hold a new mirror up to Celia’s reflection of who she used to be. Put together, these pieces tell a story of heartbreaking adolescent cruelty at the hands of young girls, a phenomenon that, despite the current headlines, is as old and inexplicable as the female species itself.
“The False Friend” is a novel that resonates long after the turn of the last page. Economical in its length and compact in its premise, this narrative is an expansive exploration on the discrepancies between who we are, who we think we are, and who we strive to become.