Book review: The Truth Commission, by Susan Juby

Susan Juby’s The Truth Commission is a really striking contemporary novel, and not just because it cut quite close to home for me from a number of perspectives. I really love the structure, I really love the characters, and I really love how dynamic and engaging it is. It’s also falling into my strange recent thread of being really into YA contemporaries, which I honestly had not expected as a reader, but I’m going with the flow, because, hey. The heart wants what the heart wants and my heart is so frequently denied these days that I think I can throw it a bone now and then.

The text revolves around the pretense that it’s narrative nonfiction, with metacommentary about the environment surrounding Normandy Pale, the main character. She writes about the people she sees around her and outsiders to the drama in a series of footnotes, which is enough to totally endear her to me, but she’s so much more than that, starting with her friends Dusk and Neil, who play a key role in a story about exploring the truth and deciding how important it is to you. This isn’t just a story about uncovering truths, though, but also about forcing difficult conversations — some of the truths are obvious and trivial, but the deeper issues snarled up in the book are much darker.

Our setting is an art school with ridiculous amounts of money, a small student body, and constant hijinks. It reminded me of a strange combination of my high school and my alma matter, both of which were filled with weird people doing strange things and feeling completely normal about it. The trio of friends embark on a ‘truth commission’ to push their classmates to come out, bringing truths about themselves into the public, and Normandy is a reluctant participant at first, disliking the idea of cornering people to ask them intrusive questions.

But there’s another layer to this story that I honestly found more interesting: The drama with Normandy’s sister, who has returned home from college abruptly and with no explanation. Her sister, you see, is a world-famous comic artist with a beloved series based very heavily on the lives of her family, and her depiction of their home life is cruel and hostile. Normandy has a highly conflicted relationship with her sister, feeling like she has to walk on eggshells around her while being infuriated at how she’s treated in her sister’s work. As the truth commission does their work and she digs in an attempt to find out what’s going on with her sister, we learn more about who both Normandy and her sister really are behind their facades.

We live in an era where people surround themselves in facades, pretenses, and various versions of themselves. Sometimes, I feel like it’s a time when we never really know anyone, with people constantly shifting in highly unreliable and often frustrating ways. Even when we interact with people primarily in person, we still don’t know who they are, and it’s not just because they hide things or keep their confidences, much as people have done throughout history. There’s something deeper and darker about the way we interact now, and which stories are truths while others are falsehoods, or somewhat creative interpretations of reality. The Truth Commission gets at some of this tension, focusing on a time in life when people are really struggling with who they are, but more importantly, who they want to become.

Normandy needs to make choices about who she wants to be and how she wants to interact with her family. Some of those choices are going to be difficult, and Juby doesn’t flinch away from them. The characters around her also need to consider their own roles not just in Normandy’s life, but their own, and this is particularly telling with the art school characters around her, many of whom seem cartoonish and fake, but turn out to be more genuine over time as we learn about who they are through conversations that force their truths into the public eye.

The truth commission claims that truths can be liberating, though it’s not always that simple, and in a way, they’re perhaps most liberating for the depictions of the characters, as Juby can focus on who they are rather than on what they’re hiding. That creates a testimony to the power of being out and open, with speaking radical truths — while the things people reveal in The Truth Commission may seem unimportant to adult readers, they aren’t to the characters, or to their contemporaries, and that’s important to acknowledge. It can be scary to reveal parts of yourself, and scarier still to have that admission cut down.

Some parts of the book feel highly unrealistic, which can take you out of the narrative in a jarring way, and I won’t talk around that in my assessment of the text. Particularly at the end, Juby rushes a bit to wrap the story up in a neat conclusion and some of the ways in which the story falls out are too pat, simplistic, and unlikely. If those kinds of endings frustrate you, you might find your view of the book discoloured by the terminus of the story — or you might simply find that the strength of The Truth Commission is reduced by the tidily polished ending. If you’re willing to overlook these narrative problems, though, there’s a lot to like here, and I’m excited to see more from Juby as she develops her skills.