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Peter Temple, Truth

September 3, 2010

I think that every novelist has a single ideal reader (Stephen King, On writing)

Peter Temple, Truth

Truth bookcover (Courtesy: Text Publishing)

As I was reading Peter Temple‘s Truth I wondered whether I was Temple’s “ideal reader”. Somehow I think not. I am not a crime novel reader, but I did read and greatly like Temple’s previous book, The broken shore, so why did I feel less enthusiastic about Truth?

Part of the reason might be expectations. This novel won the Miles Franklin award this year. I don’t, theoretically, have a problem with a so-called genre novel winning literary awards but I did expect that if such a book won it would be out of the ordinary, and by that I mean that it would break the mould of its genre in some way. Well, I don’t think Truth does that. Of course, the Miles Franklin doesn’t explicitly say the work has to be innovative; it just says the work must be “of the highest literary merit” and present “Australian life in any of its phases”.

Another reason, related to the above, is that I found it to be a little too stereotypical. While I don’t read crime fiction as a matter of course, I do watch a lot of crime television, particularly those based on the writings of Ian Rankin, Val McDermid, and the like. I didn’t find Temple’s detective here, Steve Villani (who at one point talks of “the full stupidity of his life”), particularly different from many of the other contemporary angst-ridden middle-aged detectives I’ve seen. I didn’t find the plot, which deals with corruption (in the police force, politics and business) to be particularly different either.

So, did I like anything about it? Well, yes. But not for what Val McDermid would expect. She has said that:

As literary fiction became more hermetic, more concerned with literary theory and less concerned with narrative, crime writers assumed the mantle of turning the spotlight on the world we live in and doing it in a form where narrative was still of paramount importance.

Oh dear. I have to say this narrative bored and, at times, confused me. I was not interested in the plot – in remembering who all the characters were and guessing whether this one or that one might have “done it”. I just didn’t care. But, I was interested in Villani and his relationships with people – his father and brothers, his family, his old (now deceased) boss Singo, and his colleagues, particularly the indigenous policeman, Dove, who appeared in The broken shore. It was all a bit typical really – the workaholic cop with the troubled background and failing marriage – but Temple did manage to engage me in this character. He did this largely by telling the story through Villani’s eyes – through a third person limited point of view (or “first person in the third person” as he told Ramona Koval on the Bookshow). We are right there with Villani through one pretty hellish week in his life: horrific murders, bushfire threatening his father’s property, and a runaway daughter, alongside the odd bit of pressure to drop one of the cases because it was “just” a prostitute who’s not worth rocking the boat over.

Peter Temple is well-known for his writing. Ramona Koval describes this book as having “beautifully written ugly scenes”. I suppose they are. There is a lot of staccato dialogue, though Temple does little to explain the language used by the cops. If you don’t know the lingo, you are expected to pick it up as you go. (American readers, however, will apparently get a glossary!). There are a few motifs which run through the book. Smells are important – they convey the corruption and the social disintegration in the city and they play a practical role in solving a crime; and trees are also significant, conveying Villani’s connection with nature and his father, with, that is, something far more healthy than his homicide-driven life:

Below them a forest, wide and deep and dark, big trees more than thirty years old. Planted by hand, every last one, thousands of trees – alpine ash, mountain swamp gum, red stringybark, peppermints, mountain gum, spotted gum, snow gum, southern mahogany, sugar gum, silvertop ash. And the oaks, about four thousand, grown from acorns collected in two autumns from  every russet Avenue of Honour Bob Villani [father] drove down, from every botanical garden he passed.

Lists like this are a feature of the writing and they are effective in building up pictures in the fast moving, rather clipped world of this novel. Rhythm is in fact a significant aspect of the style. As you would expect, the story is mostly grim, but there is the odd bit of humour. I did love this one:

“Say police as caringly as possible. Like a blessing.”
“Jeez, that’s a big ask.”

The title seems to come from a horse which is mentioned only once in the novel:

…the first horse Bob raced, the best horse he ever had had, the lovely little grey horse called Truth who won at her second start, won three from twelve, always game, never gave up. She sickened and died in hours, buckled and lay, her sweet eyes forgave them their stupid inability to save her.

There’s a message in there somewhere – mostly ironic. I kinda like that.

So, my overall reaction? I don’t usually read reviews before I post, but I do when I’m preparing for my bookgroup. One of the reviews I read was Edmund Gordon’s in The Guardian. I like his conclusion that it’s an accomplished book but doesn’t escape the bounds of its genre. I was, I realise, hoping it would – and that means I’m not Peter Temple’s “ideal reader”. You, however, may be.

Peter Temple
Truth
Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2009
387pp.
ISBN: 9781921520716

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2010 11:56 pm

    Well the good news is that I bought a copy of The Broken Shore so I’ll get to it sometime in the next ten years. I’m with you on the workaholic policeman thing–throw in alcoholism and it just takes a turn towards boring. Unless the author can add enough extra character details to spice up individuality, I begin to feel I am reading a book generated from a checklist.

    Is an ‘ideal reader’ literally a real person? Or is the I.R. something that the writer dreams up? (The sort of person who would in theory react the way the writer thinks readers should).

    • September 4, 2010 8:29 am

      Great Guy. I plan to hang around for another 10 years or so, so I’ll keep an eye out for your review. Re Truth, the characterisation is well-written so that does lift it a little. There’s quite a lot to tease out in the book – I’ve only skimmed the surface – and many rave over it so it does have things going for it.

      Re “ideal reader”, yes, I think really it’s more something the writer dreams up – and presumably hopes that enough of the “real readers” out there approximate his/her “ideal reader”. It’s something, though, that my online bookgroup friends and I often play around with when we don’t rave over a book, particularly one that has lots of merits but doesn’t hit the mark for us!

  2. September 4, 2010 1:29 pm

    Well said, Sue!

    • September 4, 2010 10:59 pm

      Thanks Lisa. Tonight I was talking to a friend who belongs to another bookgroup. She loves this book and really admires Peter Temple for his writing and, she said, the way he is grappling with maleness in Australia. I did think about teasing out the father-son/boss(aka father)-employee(aka son) motif throughout the book because it was a biggie, but in the end only made a passing reference because it didn’t seem unique enough. Still, she gave me pause – but, in the end, I can only feel what I feel, eh?

  3. September 6, 2010 6:05 am

    “(American readers, however, will apparently get a glossary!)” – Now that just pees me off no end…

    Hmm, the ideal reader. That’s something I’ve often thought about with other writers. Crime fiction is a narrow genre (narrow as in the ingrediants you put into it to make it what it is). I suppose you either like the angst-ridden middle-aged detective or you don’t. I’m still trying to decide.

    • September 6, 2010 2:46 pm

      I understand that … it seems to be something American publishers ask for. They clearly think American readers need spoonfeeding in a way that the rest of us don’t!! I don’t recollect having glossaries in our books for English or American authors.

      LOL re angst-ridden middle-aged detectives. I can cope with them on a 2 hour escapist TV show but perhaps less so in multiple hours of reading?

  4. September 9, 2010 10:39 am

    Villani is stereotypical, but if the aim of the exercise was to find a well-written book that showed “Australian life in any of its phases” then I think Truth wasn’t a bad choice. I read it over the weekend, and came away with the idea that the god of this story was corruption — corruption of all kinds — social, personal, and physical — institutional corruption, the corruption of a marriage, the corruption of personality, the corruption of a family, the corruption of bodies once they’re dead, the corruption of everything except nature, animals and plants, which retain a purity of their own, and which Villani’s father tries to protect. His sons have succumbed, but he might save a tree. Corruption is so endemic in Temple’s world that even the successful daughter’s dinner date, which, in a different kind of book, would seem innocent, or an event to celebrate, is regarded in a sour way, as if this is another kind of corruption. And even this simple bit of innocent interaction has to be protected by her father, who has a chance to ruin it, and has to decide whether he wants to be a destructive force in his daughter’s life, or a shielding force. (I’m being vague because I don’t want to give away too much, but life is so determined to crush him that even this choice becomes complicated, and destructive in its own way.)

    And this light of corruption is being reflected onto us through an Australian lens, specifically a Melburnian or Victorian one. The West Gate collapses, the house prices in Yarraville are going up, and there’s a new casino at Southbank. The man’s done his research. People speak in slang and Villani mocks his Kiwi boss with sheep jokes. Franklin was all for books that were Totally Oz, and this one is chockers with it. Look past the world-weary (etc) police officer, and the crime plot, and I think it’s a striking piece of work.

    • September 9, 2010 4:37 pm

      Again, thanks DKS for your thoughtful as ever comments.

      Many others, I know, agree that it is a striking piece of work … but somehow it just didn’t quite do it for me. The corruption all seemed so same-old to me, really. There’s also a lot about fathers (of sons in particular) and the sorts of role models they are and can be – the “real” father (Bob), the “professional” father (Singo), and Villani himself as a brother-father . I thought about exploring that a little in the review but it seemed a little obvious. However, a fan I spoke to on the weekend thought this father/exploration of masculinity was wonderful. The nature point was great though – and the way he used the trees to stand for something real between father and son, and something good and (relatively) permanent is the rather, as you say, corrupt world.

  5. September 22, 2010 2:25 am

    That Val McDermid quote is excellent. For me, the best crime fiction says something about the world around us, it uses the crime as a means to investigate society.

    It does sound like it fit the prize criteria well, in terms of saying something about contemporary Australia. Interesting stuff.

    • September 22, 2010 3:45 pm

      I agree with you. Same with sci fi. I don’t read much genre at all but when I do it’s usually because it’s been recommended for its commentary on society and human behaviour. It’s why I liked his previous book.

      LOL re contemporary Australia – some would not agree but I think it does say something about some aspects of contemporary life (not that I would know of course living a far more “polite” middle class life!)

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