Kate Reed Petty’s debut was the subject of a great deal of pre-publication brouhaha in my neck of the Twitter woods, including four different covers for advance reviewer copies, all of which appear on the published edition. I landed the dark one featuring a cabin in the woods setting me up for something rather sinister. Rebecca at Bookish Beck was sent the prom queen version and I wondered if each of us had approached the novel differently as a result. True Story’s structure echoes that clever marketing strategy, telling the story of Alice, left with no memory of what happened to her the night she passed out in the back of a car driven by two boys taking her home from a party.
In 2014, Alice is living in Barcelona working as a ghostwriter for a rich man in his thirties when she’s contacted by her old friend Haley. When they were thirteen, Alice and Hayley wrote film scripts, sharing a love of horror movies. Hayley is now a filmmaker, eager to make a movie of Alice’s version of the events she heard boasted about at Denny’s by Max, the school’s bad boy, and Richard, endlessly teased about his sexual shyness. It’s a story of assault, one that has overshadowed Alice’s life, making her easy prey for the controlling ‘Q’ from whom she fled to Barcelona. Rumour and uncertainty about what happened that night have dogged Alice, undermining her confidence and making her constantly question herself. Nick was also present at Denny’s, listening to Max’s graphic descriptions of what was done to Alice. One of the school’s lacrosse stars, he was afforded the kind of latitude that set him up for a life of alcoholism and dead end jobs. The day after the party the rumour mill kicked into action, further fuelling Alice’s distress with its outrage. Fifteen years later, Hayley is determined that she and Alice will expose the truth to the world but Hayley’s version may not be the same as Alice’s.
Petty’s novel explores themes of truth and its interpretation, memory and culpability with the pace of a thriller. Much of the story is told through Nick who has the makings of a decent man but falls victim to his lacrosse star status and the indulgence it brings. Woven through Nick’s account is Alice’s story told through college applications, film scripts and episodes from a life overshadowed by the uncertainty of what happened that night. Nick’s sections are particularly well done – the ever-present teenage fear of humiliation, the bad behaviour countenanced by adults, the descent into alcoholism and paranoia. Jock culture is uncomfortably portrayed, from hazing to attitudes towards women. This is a cleverly constructed novel although as this is a spoiler-free zone I won’t be revealing just how clever, suffice to say that something which had me thinking that’s a step too far was neatly explained towards its satisfying end. A smart piece of fiction whose ambition pays off leaving me keen to see what Petty comes up with next.
Riverrun: London 9781787478442 400 pages Hardback