You can handle All the Truth That’s in Me.
Several of my recent reviews have drawn criticism from some twitter corners. ‘Quite chippy,’ wrote one. ‘A bit harsh,’ tweeted another. I stand by my words. To build a tedious plot on flimsy premises is one thing, but to do it by telling and not showing is unpardonable. ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining,’ wrote Chekov. ‘Show me the glint of light on broken glass.’ While many YA titles are nought but moon-shine, Julie Berry’s All the Truth That’s in Me is a moving mosaic of glinting panes.
18-year-old Judith, the narrator of this powerful and poetic tale, does not need to say in which year her story takes place, for she shows us a world fashioned by hatchets and axes, where mothers are ‘hard at work shucking ears of corn,’ pots are washed in streams and ‘sickness is a regular guest.’ She does not tell us to which country her home town of Roswell Station belongs; from the pervasive piety and the harshness of the winter we can deduce that it is one of the first colonies of the New World. Most intriguingly of all, Judith’s taciturnity extends to her dismembered mouth: she refuses to reveal the whereabouts of the man who kidnapped her and cut out her tongue.
Were she to undergo a similar ordeal today, Judith would be lauded for her bravery and stoicism. In her cold and Christian world, though, her fortitude draws sinister and salacious suspicion; even her mother often thinks ill of her. Muted and stigmatised, she becomes a target for some of the town’s more loathsome male residents. A lesser character would crumble amid the rumours and rancour and unforgiving winter, but not Judith. She finds solace in the benevolence of animals, her few fragments of friendship and, most of all, the great love of her life, Lucas.
Judith’s stirring story is in large part a love letter to Lucas. She addresses him directly throughout, often with striking beauty: ‘Then you appear, through the trees, guiding your mule as he pulls a tree limb. Like a soldier back from battle you fill my vision. You’re a flood, a baptism I’d forgotten, and the force of you leaves me breathless. The religious reference is more than a passing motif: the hell of theocracy and the bizarre barbarity of the Bible are inescapable. For Judith they are just two more obstacles on the road to love, truth and justice.
Scarred and shunned as she is, Judith still retains a sharp and brilliant mind. ‘He wears the face he’s perfected through the years whenever he was ill,’ she writes of her kind-hearted brother, Darrell, ‘the mask of tragic suffering, which melts Mother like pig fat.’ More tellingly, she comprehends the absurdity of a patriarchal society that values ‘maidenhood’ over the rights and progress of women. Against her domineering Mother, an odious schoolmaster and gathering storm clouds she struggles to build a platform for rebellion. ‘But how can I let his Latin poems and his stinging ruler prevail? I want to learn. I deserve to read and write. Thoughts for company, and a pen for a voice. Who is more entitled to those privileges than I?’
Berry’s shimmering prose is a homage to Chekov’s immortal writing rule. Her story, meanwhile, recalls the sexist injustice of Edith Wharton’s Summer, the deranged Puritanism of The Crucible and the hysterical hypocrisy and sexual repression of The Scarlet Letter. Yes, high praise for a novel that is ostensibly ‘young adult,’ but this is an engrossing text in the finest traditions of American Romanticism fused with the malevolence and mystery of Gothic horror. It is a voice for the voiceless, a candle to light a dark age.
Pick up one of our other favourite by Julie Berry, The Scandalous Sisterhood of Prickwillow Place, on our website now.