Before we get to Chapter 1, Maria Dong’s Liar, Dreamer, Thief opens with the narrator’s joyous discovery of a novel at the Scholastic book fair, then a diagram and description of an endekagram (an eleven sided figure), then a snippet of said children’s novel, Min Hee and the Mirror-Man. At once we are introduced to the sheer number of moving parts in this fast paced book. Thematically, Liar, Dreamer, Thief takes on corporate apathy, childhood trauma, and literary mystery, and at times the novel manages to handle all of them at once. The book centers Katrina Kim, a young professional grappling with her place in the real world amidst her own constructed reality. Katrina is thrust into a scenario beyond her comprehension when her coworker commits suicide in front of her, blaming her for the very act. Katrina has been stalking said coworker for months out of intrigue and a desire for kinship, rather than any romantic inklings. She gathers bits of information here and there, which all come in handy as events unfold. While the book proves a snappy page-turner, with Katrina’s voice shining through, there are pacing issues stemming from this multitude of ideas that ultimately hold it back from greatness.
The novel opens with Katrina reminiscing about this totem of her life, Min-Hee and the Mirror-Man. The fictional novel is a fantasy quest in a Wonderland-esque world, in which the lonely Min-Hee must use soul-revealing spy glasses and solve riddles to achieve her goals. What begins as her resonating with another Korean character becomes the premise of her carefully constructed world, in which she envisions her own kitchen as the mushroom forest and her roommate as the mysterious Unicorn. Katrina also fixates on eleven-sided figures and draws them on every door and surface to bring her peace in troubled times. These events paint a picture of someone innately in need of help. Yet Katrina turns her back on therapy and only grudgingly accepts the financial and emotional help of her roommate, Leoni. She barely holds down her faceless corporate job at Advancex, and that too leads to another fixation, her coworker Kurt. We spend much of the novel establishing Katrina’s worldview and voice, and while the mystery is not yet set into motion, these meanderings are well worth reading and propelled forward by Katrina’s unique perspective. While I am loath to adore the ‘mental illness as plot point’ narrative, establishing Katrina’s perspective is key to setting up the remainder of the story.
Even after Kurt’s unexpected suicide, the true mystery of his death and the darker aspects of his persona that not even Katrina’s stalking could reveal are left to the very end. Instead of a slow burn to the conclusion, we watch Katrina process her familial trauma and her own sense of guilt, her perceived culpability in Kurt’s suicide. Only in the final third do we face the puzzles and clues reminiscent of Min-Hee’s fictional journey. But due to sheer lack of time, all of these are solved quickly and conveniently by Katrina and her allies. In this same stretch of time we meet Katrina’s family and find our way to an emotionally resonant reunion, which does not feel earned nor anticipated. Although these plot points are the crux of the novel, these parts feel considerably weaker than the gradual character exploration and setup. The underlying mystery is ultimately less interesting than Katrina’s exploration of the world, and the novel could have remained in this lane or provided more time for the characters to reveal themselves, their stories, and their motivations.
Still, Liar, Dreamer, Thief is a fascinating hybrid between coming of age novel, workplace novel, and literary thriller. By anchoring a character as fascinating as Katrina Kim, Maria Dong creates a captivating, if at times uneven, story rooted in modern obsession and repressed trauma.
Liar, Dreamer, Thief
by Maria Dong
Grand Central Publishing
Published January 10th, 2023