Once, long ago and probably in a land far away, I used to lecture in Children’s Literature. For the best part of forty years, if you wanted to know what was current on the children’s/YA book scene I was the person to whom you turned. However, over the last decade I have gradually left that existence behind and very much lost touch with what is being published in a field that dominated my reading for most of my adult life. Then, a couple of weeks ago Waterstones sent me one of their regular emails announcing the short lists for their Children’s Book Prize for 2019 and just out of curiosity I glanced through it to see if there were any names I recognised. What I wasn’t expecting was to see my own surname there.
Now, if your name is Smith or Jones coming across someone with the same surname as you must be pretty much a daily occurrence, but when you share that name with less than two hundred people world wide it rather takes your breath away. So, out of sheer nosiness for the first time in over ten years I found myself ordering and reading a YA novel and, thank goodness, very much enjoying it.
Jess Wilson is a relatively new student at Dartmeet College in Devon. Like many of the other students there she has been traumatised by the fate of her roommate, Hanna, who has fallen to her death from the window of the room they shared. The relationship between Jess and Hanna had been fraught, not the least because Hanna had started a romance with Ed, the boy that Jess fancied, and Jess, when we first meet her, is clearly concerned that her subsequent behaviour towards Hanna was responsible, in one way or another, for her death. However, Jess has far more to worry her than that, because she carries secrets from her past life that isolate her not only from the other students but from the wider world as well. Blessed or cursed (take your pick) not only with a photographic (eidetic) memory but also with hyperthymesia, the type of memory that allows an individual to recall everything that has ever happened to them, Jess has run away from a programme led by one Professor Coleman where she has been more or less used as a lab rat to find out whether or not it is possible to erase traumatic memories from people’s minds. No more PTSD – or at least that is the more anodyne of the possible outcomes of the Professor’s research. Of course, if you want to test a theory like that then the subject involved has to have a traumatic memory for you to erase and Jess’s memory of her mother’s death in a road traffic accident fits the bill perfectly.
Or does it? As Jess finds herself, however unwillingly, becoming more and more involved in the life of the College and her fellow students she, and the reader, begin to question the accuracy and the completeness of her recall. If there is no one against whom you can test your memory how do you know what you remember is what actually happened; how can you be certain that there aren’t things that you have forgotten? This is a first person narrative. When I am being told that the narrator is as reliable as it is possible to get, perhaps I should be asking if really, however unwittingly, Jess isn’t the ultimate unreliable narrator. Was she involved in Hanna’s death? Is Professor Coleman actually the monster she makes out? This is what Jess and the reader have to explore.
The Truth About Lies is an extremely interesting exploration both of how our memory can define us and how it can deceive us as to who we truly are. Coming immediately after my reading of Diane Setterfield’s Bellman and Black, where memory is set against thought, Tracy Darnton’s book pits it against feelings, suggesting that while it may be possible to wipe out recall of events, erasing the feelings attached to those events is neither possible nor desirable. This is an excellent first novel and if I baulked a bit at the dénouement I pulled myself up short and reminded myself that many an adult thriller has an ending that seems a bit too neat. Will it win the Waterstone’s prize? I don’t know. Maybe I should return to my roots and read the other contenders. This book has made me recall why I chose to specialise in Children’s Literature in the first place.