Following dual timelines, this dark and twisty tale explores the way our wishes colour what we see. In 2019, Julianne is married to James and living a wealthy, comfortable life in exclusive Knightsbridge when her teenage son brings her something disturbing he’s found on the shared family drive, something which will rock the foundations of everything Julianne thinks she knows about her life.
The timeline in 1990 follows Holly, an English student in her first term at Oxford University and way, way out of her social depth. Dragged into the glamorous orbit of Ally, her brother Ernest and their friend James, Holly finds herself witness to the kind of liberated behaviour this sheltered scholarship girl had only dreamed of.
And to be honest, this was where the story fell down for me. If Holly went to a state school in Essex, she saw plenty of sex, drugs and bad behaviour of all sorts going on. I started university in ‘93, so I’m supposedly just four years younger than Holly, i.e. of the same generation. She’d probably seen a lot more than the private-school brats who were supposedly so much more sophisticated than she was. And though I didn’t go to Oxford, there were plenty of smart kids I know who did, and it certainly wasn’t the exclusive enclave of rich kids leavened only by a sprinkling of scholarship types the author makes out, not in the early nineties. Or possibly the author didn’t realize that university tuition was free for all students in the UK at the time, making even the most exclusive universities actually a lot more egalitarian than they are today.
At any rate, Holly was easily the most sympathetic character in the book. She came across as a socially awkward 18-year-old, desperate to be included in the ‘cool kids’ gang, with an unrequited crush which backfires on her in a truly awful way I really didn’t see coming. Julianne, the other protagonist, was rich and clueless, and so poorly fleshed out she didn’t seem to have any hobbies of her own beyond shopping and arguing with her appalling mother. I felt sorry for her son Stephen, who at 17 was the one who discovered the truth of his father’s activities, only for his mother to try and explain it away.
The book’s Big Reveals are shocking and nasty in a way that feels all too real, considering how those in power manipulate the system to benefit themselves. Though rape and child abuse are themes in the book, and one rape technically occurs ‘on the page’ there’s nothing offensively graphic or titillating in the way it’s presented, which I appreciated.
In the end, nobody comes out smelling of roses, and some people are revealed to be genuinely vile but not necessarily going to get their comeuppance (though the ending is left open enough for you to imagine it if you need that). Which is kind of what makes this so realistic, because in real life nobody’s perfect, we all make bad decisions with hindsight, especially if scenes have been staged and people we respect and care about have been gaslighting. Well-written, this had a few plot points I didn’t quite buy, which is why I’m giving it four stars rather than five.
A Version Of The Truth is available now.
Disclaimer; I received a copy of this book for review through NetGalley.