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Posted on 5 Nov 2020 in Fiction | 1 comment

CERIDWEN DOVEY Life After Truth. Reviewed by Amy Walters

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Set among Harvard alumni, Ceridwen Dovey’s new novel explores power relations and hidden lives.

Life After Truth is Ceridwen Dovey’s fourth work of fiction, following on the heels of her critically acclaimed 2018 novel In The Garden of the Fugitives. The story centres on a Harvard block-group (students who shared living quarters while studying) over the weekend of their fifteenth reunion. There is married couple Rowan and Mariam, wealthy actress Jules, jewellery designer Jomo, and psychology professor Eloise and her partner Binx, an advocate for the post-human community, which believes in escaping the traditional physical constraints on the human body through technological augmentation. Lastly there is Fred Reese II, whose father, the current President, is instantly recognisable as the ‘buffoon’ who ‘got a kick out of plugging his son’s friends into the circuit boards of power’.

Dovey herself is a Harvard graduate and was inspired to write the book following her own experiences attending five-year reunions. She graduated alongside Natalie Portman and Jared Kushner, who find their avatars among the novel’s characters.

Though Dovey is clearly reflecting on her own experiences, this novel is no roman à clef, as the central plot device is the death of the President’s son. What ensues cannot be classified as a murder mystery either; to a degree the novel eludes categorisation, combining a literary examination of the characters’ hidden lives with a ‘middlebrow’ mix of drama and wit. Initially released in 2019 as an Audible original, Dovey acknowledges in an interview with Harvard magazine that this novel diverges from her previous, more consciously literary offerings, and that this reflects her process of coming to terms with her identity as a white South African:

For the first two decades of my writing life, that was my obsession: figuring out how to atone for that in my writing, and how to speak the things I had to say from ground that didn’t ever feel stable… it was a creative experiment for me, a challenge, to find a voice that was warmer, more accessible, less anguished about big ideas like power-abuse and complicity, and prepared to accept that it is okay to write a novel about the minutiae of everyday lives.

Despite her claim to a more ‘commercial’ premise, however, Dovey’s keen eye for power relations remains evident throughout this novel. Indeed many of the preoccupations of her previous fiction resonate throughout it. Her 2007 debut, Blood Kin, depicts a coup in an unnamed African country, and is an overt examination of political corruption and the fine line between love and betrayal. In The Garden of the Fugitives also featured Harvard students and the dependency-inducing relationships they can unwittingly fall into, centring on correspondence between a philanthropist and his former protégé. Over the course of the novel the two embark on a process of reckoning in which their formerly hidden motivations – and misdemeanours – are laid bare.

Proximity to power, both actual and desired, is a central concern of Life After Truth. The status of a Harvard education as the best in the world is referenced throughout the novel, and the characters must navigate lingering constellations of obligation and guilt. To Jules, ‘Harvard had let her in, therefore she felt she should say yes to anything they asked of her in return.’ Jomo and Eloise confront the ways their pasts are entangled with Fred Reese. Eloise cringes at the recollection of an ill-considered dalliance with him, while Jomo humiliatingly pursued a reference from Fred’s father to cement his acceptance at graduate school. Miriam and Rowan, meanwhile, have stuck to their principles by taking lower-paid jobs devoid of glamour. They have a burgeoning resentment at their lack of financial resources, which precludes them from paying for babysitting and other help on the home front.

While the parlous state of contemporary politics is an inescapable backdrop to the reunion (‘[c]ompared to President Reese, Dubya now seemed like a cuddly, currant-eyed teddy bear’), the novel largely focuses on the discrepancy between the characters’ private realities and public facades. How we narrate the stories of our own lives, and whether we can transform our pasts through the retelling of them, is a key concern for Dovey. In a 2014 essay for The Monthly, she wrote: ‘all fiction is to some degree autobiographical, in the sense that it constructs a self for the writer, and all non-fiction is to some degree fictional, in being constructed’. For the block-group, ‘[e]ach reunion erected another barrier between the reality of college life and the recollection of it’.

The characters have the opportunity to spin stories about themselves in the reunion yearbook, which proves  a fraught exercise; Miriam feels that Rowan gives away too much private information about their relationship (he describes her natural childbirths in graphic detail) and over the weekend she tries to ‘balance out’ his characterisation of their relationship in her conversations with former classmates. She also faces ‘the dilemma of what to say when telling a stranger – or even your friend – about your children’ and makes an effort to remain ‘[o]utwardly neutral’ about parenting styles, though ‘[w]hen it came to her private opinion on these topics, it was a bloodbath of no-holds-barred judgement’.

This all begs the question: what is the eponymous ‘truth’? In some ways, the novel is a riposte to the notion of ‘post-truth’ that is bandied about in commentaries on contemporary politics; as in her previous writing, Dovey insists that self-knowledge is possible. Primal feelings are simmering just below the surface of the characters in their need for love and trust, though it is from these needs that their darkest impulses also arise: ‘in times of great danger, parents are nothing if not traitorous to everyone in their lives except their children and each other’.

For the characters, truth is largely the process of coming to terms with life’s inevitable compromises and sacrifices, which are only evident in hindsight. It signifies the end of youthful idealism and the acknowledgement that your other possible selves will never come into being. Dancing with another woman at the reunion, Rowan contemplates the ‘crushing yet also … affirming awareness that in another life, an alternate universe, this person could have been yours. But in this life, in this universe, all you would be granted was a single dance at your fifteenth reunion.’ It also involves a dawning realisation of your complicity in an unequal social system despite your best efforts to stand apart from it; that ‘knowing about the suffering of others did nothing to help reduce it’.

Living with truth also means readjusting ideas about success and failure; if ‘the false sense of being able to cordon yourself off from life’s hardships was what made wealth so appealing’, it doesn’t hurt to blend back into the crowd rather than pursue the highly individualistic lust for power and money that is inculcated by institutions such as Harvard. Catching the train back to Brooklyn with her family, the smell of their winter jackets reminds Miriam of ‘cramped subway journeys, bracing mornings at the local park and a thousand forgotten errands’. She finds herself ‘[c]onscious of the gentle consolations of early middle age’ and ‘grateful to have been spared’.

I found Life After Truth utterly compelling on all levels: the story captivated me, I cared for the characters, and Dovey’s prose was just as dazzling as in her previous work. Not a word was out of place, and many a perfectly pitched phrase cut to the core of human experience, demonstrating that a novel with broad appeal does not have to skimp on profundity. Dovey has recently released another Audible original, Once More With Feeling, which examines an 85-year-old man’s second brush with romantic love. I can’t wait to read it.

Ceridwen Dovey Life After Truth Penguin Books 2020 PB 304pp $32.99

Amy Walters is a Canberra-based writer and reviewer. She runs the blog the Armchair Critic, and her reviews have also appeared in RightNowKill Your DarlingsThe Big Issue and ArtsHub. Website: https://armchaircriticoz.wordpress.com/  Twitter: @CouchCritic18

You can buy Life After Truth from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW here or you can buy it from Booktopia here.

To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.

1 Comment

  1. I now have two candidates for the PM’s Lit Award: The Tolstoy Estate and Life After Truth. I’m glad I don’t have to choose between them:)