A few months ago, a friend of mine (and a hell of a fiction-slinger over at Hatchard’s) lent me an unassuming – some may say boring-looking – plain white proof copy of And This Is True, by debut novelist Emily Mackie. “It’s great,” she said earnestly. “It’s about a boy who’s in love with his father.”
Under other circumstances, I might have just politely smiled and hidden the book behind some prettier spines on my shelf, but this friend is not one to recommend things lightly. If she doesn’t like something about a book – prose, theme, dialogue, title – you are going to hear about it. Okay, in this case, she didn’t like the title, but that’s like a frigging standing ovation.
I finally got around to reading And This is True, and despite my reluctance to face the very unflinching subject matter, found it to be very readable, and even enjoyable. The kind of enjoyable you feel bad about, because you know you should just be appropriately disturbed. And even though I’d been warned, the casual confession on the first page still startled me: “I kissed my father once; when he was sleeping.”
Teenager Nevis and his father Marshall have just spent a near-solitary eleven years living together in a van, among piles of Marshall’s secret, never-published writing. When this kiss happens, things unravel in a pretty solid way – the van crashes and is ruined, and the two men are forced to quit their wandering ways and re-enter civilization. In an effort to forget what’s happened, terrified father Marshall rejects Nevis, often leaving him alone for hours on end (alone because Nevis is also busy hiding from their new hostess’s clingy daughter). We know that Marshall’s cruel behaviour is because what happened was Wrong, Wrong, Wrong, but that doesn’t make Nevis’s deep sense of betrayal any less keen.
In the face of this rejection, Nevis shuts down and stops talking. When he surfaces, he takes a cue from his father and begins to write, circling closer and closer to the concrete details of their past life in the van and the events surrounding the kiss(es?). This is classic unreliable narration at work, and even Nevis himself is aware of this, which is why he keeps trying to revise his writing to move towards the titular “True” story. By the end, we’re still wondering what exactly happened, but through Nevis’s own writing (and his exposure to other people who are not Marshall), he gains a crucial understanding of his father that he clearly lacked at the beginning of the novel.
I often get bored or annoyed with this style of narration. I end up thinking, “Enough now, I get the point. Yes, there is no objective way of truly documenting an event, etc, etc.” But this sometimes overused method seemed like a good fit when dealing with such an extreme psychological issue. Plus, Mackie gives Nevis such a fresh, believably naive voice, that the structure feels natural rather than forced for the sake of cleverness. Most importantly, she deals with what could be a simple shock-value premise with depth and restraint.
A good reminder to read things that may make me uncomfortable.