Review: The Truth Commission by Susan Juby
Open secrets are the heart of gossip—the things that no one is brave or clueless enough to ask. That is, except for Normandy Pale and her friends Dusk and Neil. They are juniors at Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, and they have no fear.
They are the Truth Commission.
But Normandy’s passion for uncovering the truth is not entirely heartfelt. The truth can be dangerous, especially when it involves her brilliant older sister, Keira, the creator of a bestselling graphic novel series, who has left college and come home under mysterious circumstances, and in complete silence.
Even for a Truth Commissioner, there are some lines that cannot be crossed…
This dryly funny, knife-sharp novel, written as “narrative nonfiction” by Normandy herself, features footnotes, illustrations, and a combination mystery/love story that will capture readers from the first page.
The Truth Commission has reminded me how impressive contemporary young adult literature can be. If I’m going to be truthful here I will say that over the last year or so, I was- save for a few beautiful exceptions- letdown by contemporary YA. I felt as though I was reading trope-laden narratives driven by two-dimensional characters and transparent plots. I am very happy to say that lately I have had the genuine pleasure of encountering a few YA’s that have reinvigorated my enjoyment of this genre. Now, with this latest offering from Canadian writer Susan Juby, my enthusiasm has fully returned. The Truth Commission is a terrific work that is at once ballsy, uncomfortable, dark yet hysterical and so very, very good.
Our protagonist is Normandy Pale, a student of the Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, working on her eleventh grade non-fiction Spring Special Project for her creative writing teacher, Ms. Fowler. Her project will take us through a few months of her life from the previous semester when she and her two best friends, Dusk and Neil, determine truth-seeking as their mission. As you can imagine, all goes topsy-turvy- in both amazing and horrible ways.
Their first task: uncovering the truth around a classmate they believe has had a breast augmentation and rhinoplasty. Dusk and Neil both notice Aimee, their first truth target, fidgeting by her car. While Norm objects to them bothering Aimee about any possible work she may have had, she’s overturned. Neil approaches and they are all surprised at the strangely positive results. Instead of flipping out, Aimee makes Neil her confidant.
So begins The Truth Commission’s experiments, but not all ends well. Norm finds it difficult to confront the target of her own truth-seeking campaign when her own personal and family life is so unreliable and concealed. As Norm reveals to us, her older sister Keira is an acclaimed artist and best-selling graphic novelist who has returned home from university under unknown circumstances. Neither Norm or her parents dare ask Keira why she’s home or why she keeps disappearing for days on end. Critically lauded and publicly adored artist Keira Pale, as we soon discover, took liberties in drawing unflattering versions of her family in said bestselling novel, keeps reneging on promises to help her family through their financial problems, and may be lying to Norm about the nature of her relationship with one of her teachers.
There is an arc in The Truth Commission which focuses on Norm facing her romantic feelings for a certain classmate and this is a solid feature of the story: there are some truly lovely and genuine moments. However, the more pressing storyline- the mystery regarding Keira’s return from school and the darkness that is hinted at in Keira’s new piece- just blew me away with how raw it is. Once Normandy begins to press her parents about the questions they should be asking about Keira’s bizarre return, behavior and whereabouts, Normandy’s life as she knows it begins to implode in some disturbing and unexpected ways.
Overall, I love this novel. The narrative nonfiction style is unusual and fresh and works so well here. It took a few chapters for me to get Norm’s voice and her use of footnotes, but it all settles out for a fantastic read. For readers and fans of Canadian writers such as Susin Nielsen, Robin Stevenson, Sarah N. Harvey, and Vikki VanSickle and those who enjoy gutsy contemporary YA, I highly recommend picking up The Truth Commission. In my opinion, this is the strongest Susan Juby novel I have had the pleasure of reading and I cannot wait to read what Juby does next.
Thank you to Goodreads First Reads and Penguin Canada.