Fifteen years after graduating from Harvard, five close friends on the cusp of middle age are still pursuing an elusive happiness and wondering if they’ve wasted their youthful opportunities. Jules, already a famous actor when she arrived on campus, is changing in mysterious ways but won’t share what is haunting her. Mariam and Rowan, who married young, are struggling with the demands of family life and starting to regret prioritising meaning over wealth in their careers. Eloise, now a professor who studies the psychology of happiness, is troubled by her younger wife’s radical politics. And Jomo, founder of a luxury jewellery company, has been carrying an engagement ring around for months, unsure whether his girlfriend is the one.
The soul searching begins in earnest at their much-anticipated college reunion weekend on the Harvard campus, when the most infamous member of their class, Frederick – senior advisor and son of the recently elected and loathed US president – turns up dead.
Set in 2018, Ceridwen Dovey’s Life After Truth is contemporary fiction centred around a 15-year Harvard college reunion, and how the weekend of re-connection affects a diverse group of five friends.
Reunions evoke soul-searching in even the most secure of people — reflecting on your past life, what you’ve become, have you reached your full potential? Are you where you thought you’d be?
The premise of this novel is a catalyst for a lot of emotional growth in a character, and in this novel there are five of them. Ceridwen’s novel is a breeding ground for a group of people who are forced to decide what they want in their life, and cast away what they don’t. The book explores raw, emotional issues that many readers will be able to relate to — parenthood, marriage, relationships, desire, regret.
“Eloise had made up her mind, back then, that when Jules was with her she’d let her feel free to be nothing much at all — as her friend, she could be a refuge from all the demands other people made on her. They could talk or not talk, be silly or serious, silent or boisterous, share dirty jokes or painful childhood memories.”
Narrated in third person and moving between each of the characters, most of the book is reflecting on the past. Delicately constructed chapters weave a tale of past mistakes, reflections and altercations. The five friends share an intricate past, and tensions rise when they meet for the Harvard reunion.
Ceridwen has a real talent for carving out a characters’ nature using glimpses of their past. Events from their youth have shaped who these five have become today — their attitudes and personalities, but also their worries and concerns, their trigger points. There are moments of bitterness, jealousy, misunderstanding.
By learning about their past selves, we come to understand how these relationships and friendships have evolved over time. Some have dwindled, some have strengthened. Some are on the cusp of something great. There are a couple of connections that threaten to break — secrets left unsaid, tensions unresolved. It’s a fascinating exploration of human society and the middle class. A worthy choice for a book club.
“He hadn’t seen Jules in a while, not since Thanksgiving. He wondered if she had anybody in her life to come home to in the evenings. She was a person who did not naturally share this kind of information even with her closest friends; whether it was because of her nature or her fame, it was hard to tell.”
I think there was room for a little more humour — more lightness. The mood of the novel is a sombre one, very thoughtful. And surprisingly, this novel isn’t really the crime or thriller novel that the blurb suggests. Frederick’s death is discovered at the beginning of the novel, and then it’s resolved again in the very final pages. In between, the story is all about the past. At times, the reflection felt a little overwhelming. I would’ve loved a bit more plot in the present — a bit more interaction between the characters of now, not just the characters from years past.
Other than that, Ceridwen has crafted a novel that really forces a reader to ponder their own life — if you’re thrust back into another time from your life, mingling with people who you spent your youth with, how would you feel about the person you are now? The life you lead?
“Rowan had not really ever had much to elevate him above his similarly brilliant, overachieving peers except that he’d had the great good fortune to meet his ‘soul mate’ on the very first night of college, when he’d laid eyes on Mariam at the freshman ice-cream social held in the Yard.”
Recommended for fans of literary fiction.
Thank you to the publisher for sending me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
Life After Truth
Penguin Random House Publishers
AUTHOR INTERVIEW WITH CERIDWEN DOVEY
Life After Truth switches focus between numerous characters, all with their own distinct voice. How did you manage the task of crafting the story and capturing each character authentically? Were there difficulties illustrating the timeline for each of these storylines?
This was the first time I’ve ever written using alternating third-person focalized narration (in other words, while inside that character’s consciousness, even though it’s third-person narration, I wouldn’t let them know or be able to express what any of the other characters were thinking in those same scenes/sections). While I’m still quite partial to first-person narration, I really loved writing these different voices like this – something about the third-person helps to give you, as the author, a bit of distance and perspective on the character. It’s not that relentlessly personal “I.” You can play a little more with what the character knows and what only you know as their creator. I didn’t worry too much, while I was writing, about making each voice sound different or distinctive on the page in terms of word and sentence choice, but really just focused on creating equally rich and interesting back stories and emotional dilemmas for them. I did have to be careful with the timeline, especially with Jomo’s sections, which are so crucial to understanding the choices Jules (from whom we never hear directly) makes in the end.
Reflection is a major part of the novel – thinking back on where you once were, and questioning where you are now. Are any events in the novel based on life experiences?
You’re right that reflection and reassessing one’s own past in relation to others is a key theme in the novel. All the characters are approaching middle age, and there’s nothing like a reunion to throw a spanner in the existential works and make you question all your life choices! I structured the novel over the reunion weekend so that there would be certain scenes in the immediate present (reunion events, etc.) but with plenty of space and time for each character to be casting his/her thoughts backwards, trying to remember who they had once been on that same campus. There are bits and pieces from life experience that I’ve used – I did once think I was actually going to be killed by feral bush pigs while camping above the Ngorongoro Crater, for instance! – but the wonderful thing about writing fiction, as any writer out there knows, is that it never takes the same form on the page as it does in real life. If anything, I would say it was the emotional cadences of my own Harvard reunions that I drew on the most and tried to render in language: the highs and lows, the constant internal monologue interspersed with the forced high sociality of these reunion events, the way they make you look both backwards and into the future in a way that can be very confronting, and also moving or inspiring.
What motivates you to write?
I started quite young on this journey as a writer – I wrote my first novel when I was 23. And I turn 40 this week! So I’ve had a lot of years now to try to answer that question, and I have to admit I still don’t really know. If I have to justify it in concrete terms, I’d say something about the cathartic effect of shaping the messiness of lived experience, or the way I don’t know what I feel or think until I’ve put it into words, or the sense of always standing slightly outside of the normal passage of time and life, peering in, and writing lets me translate that disconnection into connection at a remove. Yet I’ve come to see there’s also something mysterious about what draws a person to write fiction, and thinking about the ‘why’ of it too deeply is a bit like asking a centipede how many legs it has and then expecting it to continue walking on all those legs unselfconsciously. You have to guard the most intimate motivations for why you write fiction otherwise I suspect you’d lose all will to do it in the first place…
Would you be able to delve into your editing process. Once you’ve written the first draft, and you’re ready to tackle the second, third, fourth draft etc, what is your process? How do you mould your first draft into your final one?
Life After Truth is my fourth work of fiction, and with every single one I’ve had a completely different writing and editing process (I think this is why I find writing so addictive: every time, I am literally starting over from scratch with a new method or process, and feel like I don’t know what on earth I’m doing – and as a result, it also always feels like an unknown and exciting adventure). But one thing I have been surprised to learn over the years is how radically different the drafting process (the messy, pour-it-down-on-the-page creation phase) is to the crafting process (the more reasoned and critical let-it-cool-down-and-then-carve-it editing phase). It’s amazing that we expect one human to have both capacities, as they often strike me as drawing on very different skillsets and sensibilities. During drafting, you have to give yourself permission to speak – which is much harder than it sounds! – and switch off every critical faculty in your brain so that you’re not paralyzed by uncertainty or lack of confidence. But then, in the editing phase, you have to be your own harshest critic, be ruthless and severe, and look at what you’ve created with a sceptical eye in the cold light of day. With Life After Truth, this editing process was not quite as devastating as it has been for past projects (where I’ve been trying to excavate my own psyche) because all of the characters were invented, and the stakes weren’t quite as high in an ethical sense, so I found it quite satisfying to hone the narrative. But I think that’s also because the drafting process was so much fun for this novel, and came relatively easily, so in the editing phase I didn’t feel that I had to craft a sculpture out of a lump of clay (as I have felt sometimes in the past) – it was more like just using a tool to refine and polish.
If you could go back in time to when you were working on your first novel, what writing advice or guidance would you give your younger self?
I would tell the early-20-something me, just starting out, incredibly anxious about my ‘right’ to write, to enjoy that experience more. There’s nothing like writing your first novel, because you are writing it for yourself alone, in a fundamental sense – you are writing it with no idea or sense that anybody else will one day read it (even if that is your hope). You only get to experience that once, because after that first novel is published, you are always aware that – even though not all drafts of novels live to find an audience – there is a chance that it might become a public document at some stage. That does something weird to your mind, and I think that’s why the notorious second novel is such a challenge: you’ve lost the feeling of doing something very private and secretive and personal; you’ve lost the sense of writing to figure something out for yourself alone.