It’s not every day that I read a book and then, less than a few pages in, put it down to Google who has the film rights. This isn’t simply because one of this novel’s many formats is screenplay. It’s more because its stylised storytelling choices have such a unique voice from the off that it’s impossible not to imagine this on a screen.
It is tempting to simply dismiss True Story as worth nothing more than its gimmick: a unique four-way genre mash. As a writer, or perhaps just as a horrible person, I was immediately cynical, and somewhat jealous. What a smart way to get your writing noticed, I thought, bitterly. This is Kate Reedy Petty’s debut, after all. And this element is what’s being promoted front and centre, particularly by the UK publisher: Riverrun Books created four different covers for the same story, and the final version presents these side-by-side on a wooden background, as though four completely different books rest on a table. It’s unusual and it’s smart. But it wouldn’t work if the book failed to surpass the expectations of this.
I am delighted to state that this book has far more to offer than its gimmick, which I’ll admit did have me intrigued enough—terrible cynicism aside—that this one jumped three places in my ever-growing to-be-read pile, and then kept me up way past my bedtime far too many nights in a row.
As the covers and this lengthy preamble illustrate, the books take you through four disparate genres— - YA drama, psychological horror, noir thriller, and literary memoir. For this to be explicit is unusual, yes. But from a technical perspective, the act of switching wasn’t what struck me most. I was more taken by the forms within each distinct genre. I’ve already mentioned the sections written as a screenplay, but one entire section of the book takes place in an iterative series of college admissions essays, complete with notes from the teacher. A later part of the book is just a series of unsent messages.
Form aside, the story itself is a gripping series of interwoven narratives that ripple out from a sexual assault at a high school party, taking us far into the future and reaching into the past. As the genres allude to, this is not a straight telling of events. We as victims of sexual assaults lose many things. Perhaps the hardest of these to comprehend is memory and time. But we also gain other things; identity, notoriety, other things which cannot be named or shaken, and cannot be rushed or worked through. Those things are the space this book plays in, smart and indirect.
It would be remiss to discuss this book, at this precise moment in time, without mentioning Micahela Coel’s inimitable I May Destroy You, the series that premiered in June on BBC and HBO. In both, the narrative leans heavily on the gaps and the blanks and the uncertainties of assault and the actions and the timeline, and the questions of responsibility that stem from this. In both, the creators do not shy away from the realities of the repercussions, but do not create trauma porn. It’s shocking that in 2020 I would still be grateful for that, a thoughtful presentation of assault, but I am. I am grateful for these women and others who have taken one of humanity’s greatest darknesses and turned it into art.
True Story makes no apologies for the fact it is written for women, and that’s a point that Kate Reed Petty makes in this Forbes interview. As I read, I felt a distinct sense that Petty was, by paying so much attention to the form, very decisively reclaiming the concept of ‘fiction for women’, which is too often dismissed as pointedly un-literary. She describes the exact sense I had as I read far more concisely than I could in the same Forbes interview:
“I have a special soft spot for the light blue prom queen cover—partly because of its juicy Twin Peaks vibe, but also because I feel so protective of it… I’ve heard one or two people wrinkle their nose at the blue cover, which to me feels like a bit of a knee-jerk reaction to any form of storytelling that has been coded as ‘for women.”
That the validity and artistic worth of fiction ‘for women’ was ever and still is debated is another problem altogether. But the concept of reclamation ties to the novel’s very themes. Regardless of which genre convention is being embodied at any particular moment in the book, the prose remains consistently readable throughout.
If I were to find fault with this novel—which I wholeheartedly recommend—it would be to say that I found the ending too fast, too glib. Though is perhaps not a criticism at all. Through all the layers of storytelling, through the clever narrative maze of styles and perspectives—us as readers being maneuvered by increasingly expert, rigid hands—the conclusion is almost a breath of fresh air, and one I wanted to last. I wanted to peel back the conceit for longer, and spend more time at the authentic core of it. But this is an emotional craving that can only come from a story that has reeled you in. In terms of narrative closure, the swift, concise ending is undoubtedly satisfying.
Back to those film rights. I couldn’t see anything online from a simple Google, but I hope someone wonderful is taking the reins on this. And if they haven’t been purchased yet—hit me up! I envision a screenwriter’s dream of a four-part anthology series that takes each genre expectation in turn, while ensuring narrative justice. Either way—I have high hopes for this adaptation, but as always I recommend reading the book first.
By Kate Reed Petty
338 pages. 2020.