Fiction – paperback; Fourth Estate; 356 pages; 2021.
The summer after I wrote the story that killed Tracey Doran, I had just stopped sleeping with two very different men, following involvement in what some people on the internet called a ‘sex scandal’, although when it was described that way it didn’t seem like the kind of thing that happened to me.
So begin’s Jacqueline Maley’s The Truth About Her, a story about a newspaper journalist whose work — and messy sex life — comes back to bite her.
Journalist in trouble
This literary-novel-cum-psychological-thriller is set in Sydney and follows the pursuits of Suzy Hamilton, a hardworking investigative journalist who normally writes about politics. Indeed, when the novel opens, she discovers that she’s being sued for defaming a retired media mogul in a 400-word piece she wrote covering a former prime minister’s funeral.
But she steps outside her normal reporting expertise when she gets a tip-off that Tracey Doran, a local wellness blogger, organic food expert, social media influencer and podcaster, isn’t all she’s cracked up to be. The story is too good to ignore, so she writes one that exposes the truth behind Tracey’s lies.
Tracey, it turns out, hasn’t cured herself of cancer, as she claims, because she never had cancer in the first place. (If this sounds vaguely familiar it’s probably because it borrows heavily on the Belle Gibson scandal in which an Australian wellness guru was found guilty of fraud. You can read more about that on Wikipedia or watch the documentary ‘Bad Influencer’ which is currently available on BBC iPlayer in the UK and ABC iView in Australia.)
Following the publication of the story, Tracey commits suicide. (This, by the way, isn’t a plot spoiler — it happens in the first chapter. The novel is about the outfall of this event, not the event itself.)
Suzy, shocked by the news, tries not to take it to heart — everyone, after all, keeps telling her it’s not her fault.
But when she starts receiving intimidating messages and items in the post reminding her that Tracey is dead, it’s hard to ignore the consequences of writing the story. When Tracey’s mother starts pursuing her, demanding she write Tracey’s story the way she wants it to be written — a form of redemption, if you will — it all gets a bit messy and stressful.
While all this is going on, Suzy is juggling single-motherhood, worrying about her financial situation and anxious that the house she lives in rent-free, courtesy of an aged uncle, is about to be sold out from underneath her feet. Then there’s her judgemental mother, alcoholic (but kindly) father and two different lovers to worry about.
All of Suzy’s anger, guilt, shame, frustration, anxiety and stress resonate off the page.
Densely written story
The Truth About Her is a densely written novel, and despite the suspenseful nature of it — is Tracey’s mother, for instance, going to wreak violent revenge, and what is “the incident” Suzy keeps referring to which brought about the end of her marriage — I found my interest waning in places. There are too many detailed scenes and conversations, which help develop the characters but don’t do much to move the story along.
I sometimes felt that the author couldn’t make up her mind as to whether this was a book about mothering or a book about the consequences of a journalist’s actions. Trying to do both just made for a long, not always absorbing, tale — for this reader anyway.
That said, I did like the way the novel explores the ethical dilemmas faced by journalists, including the “ownership” of stories (and images), the boundaries between subject and story, and the difficulties associated with telling the truth. Ultimately, this isn’t a book about journalism, but a book about power: who has it, how it’s acquired, how it’s lost and why it’s important.