Updated on January 15, 2016
2. ‘A True Story Based on Lies’ by Jennifer Clement
I bought this book at the Hay Festival way back in 2014 and, I’ll be honest, I only picked it up now because it is short and I wanted to do some quick reads at the beginning of the year. I have to say this novel was a very pleasant surprise – it is poetic and moving, and quite beautifully written.
Leonora is a ‘broom-child’. Her family lives in extreme poverty in Mexico and she earns money by collecting twigs to make into brooms. Eventually she is taken on as a servant in a wealthy family’s home, and she works there for years with Sofia the cook and Josefa the day maid. But one day Leonora strikes up a relationship with somebody she shouldn’t, and this pitches her into a future filled with uncertainty and lies. (I’ve tried to make my summary of the story a little more oblique than the description on the book, because that blurb gives away a really major plot point that doesn’t come out until about halfway through the novel.)
The story is made up of alternating narratives: Leonora and Aura (nicknamed ‘Fly’), the daughter of the couple Leonora works for. The book is written as a series of very short paragraphs, interrupted now and again by brief poetic sentences written in italics. At the end these interludes are put together to create a sort of poetic summary of the entire story. The writing is fantastic and the whole atmosphere of the story is dreamy and slightly magical. The overall effect of the unusual writing style is that of a mosaic: the story feels like a collection of fragments brought together into a beautiful whole.
I loved the character of Josefa, the day maid who only says one word at a time. Only Sofia, the cook, can understand her, and sometimes Josefa prompts her to tell whole stories by simply saying ‘Memory’ or ‘Dreams’. At other times what she says seems completely unrelated to what has been said to her, and then she comes across mysterious, even prophet-like, as if she is seeing everything and only imparting a little wisdom that we cannot yet understand.
The story is mainly focused on the female characters, and this really is a book about how women are treated, and how they treat each other. The main characters go through extremes of emotion, and Clement tackles female relationships in many forms: friendship, sisters, employee/employer and mother/daughter. A True Story is about how women cope with the things that are out of their control, and how they deal with the things they can control. Ultimately, the characters who seem to be most in opposition (Leonora and her employer, Mrs O’Conner) react to extremes in the same way, revealing that they are, at heart, the same.
This is a quick but touching read that is exquisitely well-written.
“Crystal dove, glass dove, dove made from a window pane. I do not want to break you. Crystal dove I do not want you in pieces, broken on the floor.”
Have you read this book? I’d love to know your thoughts!
Want to read this? You can buy the book here.