‘Or maybe this time will be different. After all, next time I see you I’ll live in a new city, I’ll get a new job. Maybe I’ll be a new person. Maybe, from here on out, it’s just you and me.’
True Story is a remarkably accomplished debut novel, ambitious and engaging. A simple, sad, everyday tale of sexual assault is put under the microscope in a search for the truth. Meaning is revealed through the filter of genre fiction; this is part horror, part psychological drama, it’s a thriller, it flirts with contemporary campus fiction tropes and, even, a kind of true crime sensationalism. The switches in style keep the readers on their toes, what emerges is an emotionally wrought tale of survival. This is also an indictment of misogyny and sexism in modern American society. And Reed Petty doesn’t stop there, she questions whether we can ever know the truth that lies within any story. Facts can be verified but interpretations happen anyway and, more importantly, there’s an emotional and psychological impact that goes beyond facts and verifiable detail. This is a thought provoking and poignant tale but True Story is hopeful and life affirming too.
Barcelona 2015. Nearly twenty years after the event Alice, the victim, is due to meet her best friend Haley but at the last minute she can’t face what she fears will be a ‘confrontation’. This is the first time and place she’s felt safe since before ‘it’ happened when Alice was seventeen. Alice can’t remember the attack because she was passed out in the back of a car when it happened but she has had to live with it ever since. Two boys took her home that night, at first it appears an act to kindness, but then the rumours start. The story spreads that Alice was raped, when the police investigate the boys change their story. Alice isn’t a credible witness, the matter is dropped. The boys belong to the school lacrosse team, highlighting the macho culture of sports in schools and colleges and the culture of petty bullying. As the incident becomes known people take sides, appearance matters as much as truth to some. Alice is left with the fear and suffering. She is not the only one, some witnesses know the difference between right and wrong and their silence is deafening, others speak about things they know nothing of. Throughout the novel Alice seeks a voice that will allow her to tell her story and to make sense of it for herself, to regain control of her life. Alice was at the party before it happened by chance; it could have happened to anyone, or no one, she didn’t ask for it, she didn’t deserve it, but she has to own it.
‘Sometimes I feel like I’m living in Invasion of the Body snatchers… I feel like the last person who hasn’t been killed and replaced with an automaton of myself.’
Alice attempts suicide, she has to go into therapy, the pain is a constant. She has one thing to cling to – her friendship with Haley. There are many twists before that moment in Barcelona when she can’t face her best friend. At the end of the novel one final explosive revelation forces the reader to re-examine every thing they think they know. Effectively proving the author’s point about the difficulty of understanding where the truth lies; of course, she engineered this but it’s no less effective for that.
I’m naturally sceptical when a novel is described as ground breaking because they so often don’t live up to that hype. There is, however, something rare about the depth and variety of storytelling style used here to explore every nuanced aspect of a distressing event. As I have said, Reed Petty goes beyond the usual character POVs, questioning the nature of truth and where it lies. Can any telling really be true? (bias, misunderstanding, memory, myth, lie and interpretation). True Story goes beyond the concept of an unreliable narrator and the character understanding of what happened for its real emotional meaning.
The ‘he said, she said’ form of storytelling has become pretty familiar to readers of psychological thrillers in recent years. We are used to the adversarial accounts that peel back the layers, tit for tat, until we arrive at something we all recognise as the truth – resolution for the reader. Reed Petty has adopted this model but upped the game by cross examining those accounts. She has filtered the story through different genre to see how it stands up, whether a deeper meaning can be divined from alternative, interior and exterior perspectives, accounts usually unrecognised. Reed Petty is interested in truth and how we recognise it. She questions whether the truth matters if it differs from perception, especially if the latter is the motivation for how we behave.
The moment after an event happens it becomes a memory. It becomes a fiction in the very first telling or at least a version of ‘reality’, it changes in the sharing, in the retelling, in the replay. The question becomes much more complex than a face off between the different accounts of a couple of people. It’s about understanding and weight and significance; intellectual and emotional. Getting to where the truth lies is much more complex than any simple analysis of two varying accounts of the same event can provide. How much are we changing it by the simple fact of reading the story? In a different version of this story it could have been played out in a court room but the fundamental flaw of an adversarial court case is its lack of nuance, that is what this story exposes. To say something is true is inadequate without context and knowledge of its psychological impact. Reed Petty is saying that we fit stories into narrative structures we have already devised, boxes, walls, structures and formulae we are happy with, something that fits our societal perspective. There’s a real danger of glossing over or undermining truth.
This book is easy to engage with intellectually and once you get used to the allegorical nature of some sections of the novel it’s emotional heart opens up. True Story is thought provoking, it will stay with you, perhaps even spook you. But it’s message is positive if you care to look.
True Story by Kate Reed Petty
Riverrun 978787478442 hardback £14.99 4/8/20
Reviewed by Paul Burke