Liar, Dreamer, Thief by Maria Dong

A young woman relies on ritual and fantasy to navigate her daily life–until the real world turns as bizarre as her worst fears.

Maria Dong’s debut novel, Liar, Dreamer, Thief, is a masterfully harrowing adventure for both reader and narrator. Katrina Kim is 24 years old and struggling to keep it together. She’s not great at her temp job at an insurance company; she has no real friends other than her mostly absent roommate; she relies on rituals involving geometry and prime numbers to feel safe from her shapeless, apparently irrational fears; she frequently imagines herself into the magical world of her favorite children’s book or the classical works of music she once performed. She argues that she is not stalking her coworker Kurt, but readers will suspect this may be semantics. She has $45 in her bank account and her parents haven’t spoken to her in years. Readers may assume Katrina is struggling with an undiagnosed mental illness, drawing endekagrams (a star polygon with 11 points) to help her get through the days–until she happens to watch Kurt jump off her favorite bridge, while shouting that it is all her fault.

Liar, Dreamer, Thief is punctuated with geometry lessons (the four stellations of the endekagram) and passages from the fantasy book that provides Katrina with her other, safer-feeling life, emphasizing these coping mechanisms as she embarks on an amateur (and poorly funded) investigation into Kurt’s disappearance. Her barely functional life goes further to pieces. Just as readers begin to worry that this narrator is not only unreliable but completely unstable, the clues shift slightly, and suddenly it appears that some of Katrina’s nastiest and most fantastical fears may be all too real.

This is a completely absorbing novel, both a terrifying whodunit thriller and a heart-wrenching drama about mental health, family, loneliness and moral relativism. Dong’s pacing and revelation of secrets is expert; beware staying up late to finish Katrina’s story in one go (and, perhaps, beware nightmares of the Mirror Man). Katrina makes some cringe-worthy choices while facing challenges both existential and mundane (clocking in on time in the cubical farm); she is an imperfect protagonist but disturbingly accessible, and indomitable even in her lowest moments. Liar, Dreamer, Thief excels at empathy and conveying the frustration of one’s own limitations, as Katrina wonders, “Does everyone in my orbit have a secret tragedy, just crawling underneath the surface?” Its mysteries swell toward a denouement that feels simultaneously unwieldy and inevitable. Probing those secrets may be mortally dangerous–or may be Katrina’s salvation.

This exceptional debut novel showcases relentless momentum, horrors, compassion and an unforgettable protagonist: not to be missed.


This review originally ran in the November 11, 2022 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 minutes.

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