The Sydney Writers’ Centre Book Club kicked off last week and 12 very keen readers joined us for some spirited discussion on this month’s book – Truth by Peter Temple. We were keen to start our Book Club with an Australian book and with so much excitement around Truth, it seemed like the perfect starting point. But if I thought our first book selection would be reasonably uncontroversial, I was very wrong!
When it was released in 2009 Truth was hailed as one of the best Australian books of the year, winning Peter Temple his first Miles Franklin Award. This companion to another award-winning novel, The Broken Shore, follows Inspector Stephen Villani whose investigation of the death of a young woman in one of Melbourne’s luxury apartments leads him further into the murky world of state politics and organised crime.
Critics were almost unanimous in their praise about Truth. In preparation for our first meeting, I read many reviews and was hard pressed to find anything negative. Only one reviewer I read, Edmund Gordon writing for the Guardian, was so overwhelmed by the sheer grimness of the book he struggled to enjoy what he described as ‘great accomplishments’ in the novel.
There were also some strong feelings about this book among our group. We spent 90 minutes looking at what made this novel a success, but especially at what many thought were its failings.
Foremost among the group’s complaints about this book was the prose and dialogue. Admittedly, it is a difficult book to read. There is a lot of dialogue. For one reader, it was more reminiscent of a film script than a novel. (Interesting side note – Truth is being made into a film. It will be directed by John Polson and is scheduled for release in 2012.) The writing has been described as ‘staccato’, ‘blokey’, and the dialogue ‘clipped’ – all good descriptions of the style.
One of our members, who was one of the few who really liked the book, said she read it in one sitting, rather than short bursts. Did this help her overcome the difficult style? Possibly. I also read it over a few days during the Christmas holidays and I think that definitely helped me take it all in.
Many of the readers said they probably wouldn’t have finished this book if they weren’t reading it for book club. However, most also said they ‘turned around’ about half way through. Suddenly the clipped language and difficult dialogue started to make more sense. Many people commented on the beautiful, and sometimes tragic, imagery in some of Temple’s passages, and there were plenty of these passages throughout the book – moments where you could smell the bushfires surrounding Melbourne, or feel the heat of the city. Here's just one example:
‘The fire would come as it came to Marysville and Kinglake on that February hell day, come with a terrible thunder of a million hooves, come rolling, flowing, as high as a twenty-storey building … a huge blacksmith’s reducing fire that melted humans and animals, detonated buildings, turned soft metals to silver flowing liquids and buckled steel.’
An interesting observation from one reader who ‘got it’ about halfway through the book was that Temple wanted readers to get inside his main character's head. Unlike other books, where you’re merely observing the action, Truth really puts you right in the middle of it. The constant chatter, the sometimes disorienting descriptions of scenes and conversations, the multiple storylines – they all combined to force you to live Steve Villani’s life, rather than just read it.
On Villani, his character was another thing that prompted some heated discussion. Some readers found it difficult to sympathise with Villani at all while others thought he, and other characters, were clichéd. I guess that’s the danger with any hardboiled crime fiction, but there were a couple of people in the group who really felt for Villani and thought his character was well-developed and believable.
There was plenty more discussion on everything from the title to the worthiness of Truth as a Miles Franklin winner. Even if the reaction to this book was unexpected, I was pleased it generated so much debate. I’m really looking forward to our next meeting, where we’ll talk about Steve Martin’s latest book, An Object of Beauty.
Have you read Truth? What did you think of it? Would you recommend it to a friend?