Victoria’s Book Reviews: True Story by Kate Reed Petty


“This book is an exorcism.”

Well, this one is a REAL curve ball. Not for the faint-hearted, nor a book for those readers who like orthodox structure. This is a genre-bending novel that blends prose with screenplay, endless unsent emails with draft college submissions… Oh, and add in multiple viewpoints too. All to examine the repercussions of the sexual assault of an American schoolgirl with the intention of untangling guilt, responsibility and authorship.

It is HUGELY ambitious. Yet True Story is undeniably readable, despite the grave subject matter (and I advise that this book should come with content warnings for sexual assault, gaslighting, abuse, domestic violence, addiction, alcoholism, self-harm and self-mutilation). I read this 400-pager in just two sittings. Couldn’t put it down.

After a college party, two boys (Max and Richard) drive Alice home. But Alice is drunk and passed out in the back seat. From the next day, rumours spread about what Max and Richard did to her – with the boys in the school’s powerful lacrosse team gloating about getting their end away.

Alice will never remember what happened but, in that moment, her present and her future are destroyed. Yet that trauma is buried deep beneath cleverness and wry humour. We watch her over the next decade as that trauma plays out (“I’m not afraid of any serial murderer. What I’m afraid of is that I’m not good enough.”); but we also follow Nick, a sensitive boy, who was part of that lacrosse set and will never forget.

How Kate captures that trauma is the most brilliant aspect of this book. There are places where it is subtle – the steady erasure of any mention of the assault from Alice’s college submission essay – and there are places where it is painful to read – such as the agony of the abusive relationship Alice ends up in, that lust-hate push-pull boys seem to have for girls (and men with women), and the way the college boys (and the adults around them) portray themselves as victims.

“They were coming after us because she hooked up with a couple of guys? They wanted to punish us for her drinking too much, for her being easy? When there were assloads of kids doing stuff like that every night of the week… It was my first experience with injustice. We were no longer individuals, talented young men with hopes and dreams. We were the lacrosse team who had raped that girl.”

But, in her writing, Kate also lays down the gauntlet. Take, for example, Alice’s best friend, Haley, who for years tries to persuade and coax her friend to comfort her experience, to “own” what happened to her, and – if she can – to speak out. Is Haley some help to Alice’s recovery or a hindrance? Are all problems shared problems halved?

It’s probably no surprise that this book also carries some big twists in it hence I’m going to do my best to avoid spoilers – but, I tell you, this book will not end the way you expect, or perhaps even hope. And that is its biggest challenge. We are, obviously, in the era of #MeToo and this novel doesn’t fully play the game; it stands as quite an outlier, which intrigued me but, I can see from goodreads, upset others.

“RICHARD (V.O.) Guys have to keep trying; only girls get to say “yes” or “no.””

Al I will say is that the book’s title, True Story, should help come to terms with it. After all, we do not live in an idealised world. But I also sense that there is a good shout for saying that we should not even BELIEVE the ending – that a true story becomes a “true story” as what is truth but perception? In the absence of knowledge, we are reliant on witnesses speaking the truth. But can we believe them when they claim to do so?

There’s also been some interesting questions posed to the author, Kate, on whether the book’s title applies to her too – is this her true story? Every woman has the right to privacy but it’s an interesting question when it comes to sexual assault and trauma – do you need to have experienced it to talk about it?

In many ways, such demands limit writers and there is always research that can be completed – after all, Hilary Mantel didn’t live in Tudor England – but as I closed the book, just the cleverness of it all, the repercussion of that book’s title rippling out in my thoughts as you take in the magnitude of the explanation of the world you have just been immersed in… I wonder if Kate’s title continues to play out even further than just the words in between the covers.

Either way, I was hugely impressed. The jumps in style didn’t throw me; they intrigued me. The doses of the supernatural and crime noir puzzled me but I loved the way Kate continued to push at the walls of structure and narrative drive. This is a hugely impressive book by any standard; for a debut, even more so. Bravo.


True Story by Kate Reed Petty will be published on 4 August 2020 by riverrun; hardback RRP £14.99.

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