You do anything long enough to escape the habit of living until the escape becomes the habit. — David Ryan
It’s hard writing a blurb. How do you encapsulate an entire novel in a couple of hundred words and make it sound compelling? It’s an art. Here’s the full blurb for this book:
This is the story of a woman brave enough to risk it all. She understands better than most the things that we keep hidden. She comes to learn how the heart is usually stronger than the head. And she cannot help, despite her better instincts, being drawn into a sexually charged and highly volatile relationship. True Things About Me is a brilliantly written novel of survival that reveals simultaneously the strength and vulnerability of one ordinary woman. With great honesty and unexpected humour, Deborah Kay Davies takes us deep into the mind of her unforgettable protagonist, and in doing so asks us to consider seriously what we might sacrifice for our desires.
There were one or two reviews already online when I’d finished this and we all agreed about one thing: the protagonist in this book is not brave; she’s a stupid, stupid girl. Question: What’s the difference between bravery and stupidity — there is, after all, supposed to be a thin line between the one and the other? Answer: It’s all to do do with the risk factor — a brave person does the right thing despite the risks involved whereas a stupid person takes unreasonable risks for no good reason. Fire fighters are brave but not stupid. They assess the risks and make judgement calls.
The only fire in Meg, the narrator of Davis’ debut novel, True Things About Me, is a sexual one, at least on the surface. You have to watch the quiet ones. And she is a quiet one, an insignificant benefits officer. Meg lives alone, not even a cat for company. Her parents are still alive but they’re not especially close. Her happily married best friend, Alison, works in the same office. We never get much backstory on Meg, not even her age. And that’s probably the biggest problem with this book. Or maybe it’s a peculiarly masculine reading of it. Males tend to be more linear in their thinking than females — for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and all that kind of stuff — and so we look for reasons for everything. The problem is that sometimes people do stuff without thinking things through: there are no reasons. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any answers but if they come at all they come after the fact.
The book begins with an unreasonable act. That is why looking for a reason is pointless. She acts purely on impulse. It’s a day like any other day. One claimant follows another. And then he sits down in front of her:
Name? I said, and wrote it down. I read his paperwork. He’d just come out of prison. Nothing serious, he said, and stretched. Just having a laugh with an articulated lorry and a lamp post. He settled back in the seat and grinned. I grinned back. I don’t know why. It wasn’t at all appropriate. Address? I said. He leaned near the barrier. Why d’you want to know? he said, his breath briefly etching an oval on the glass. I told him I was just doing my job. Nothing personal. Pity, he said. I leafed through his papers and picked up my pen. Married or single? I said. Single. Very, he said, and laid his hands palm down on the surface. Good hands, nice nails and what could have been a wedding ring.
He flirts with her a bit more and then he’s gone. No harm done. A bit of flirting never hurt anyone, did it? Only he’s not gone. Alison and Meg work late:
It was getting dark as we left the building, the air slightly chilly still. He was standing opposite the entrance. There’s that man, I said to Alison. He was walking towards us. Which man? She said, peering around. Suddenly he was right in front of us. Hi, he said to me, ignoring her. Coming?
The next thing she knows she’s in an underground car park:
He backed me up against a pillar. Take your underwear off, he said and grinned, showing his teeth. Stand on me. I mean, stand on my shoes. You mustn’t get your feet dirty. He supported me while I struggled out of my tights and knickers. My mind had stretched and blanked, like a washed sheet on a clothes line. He had one arm round my waist. He put his hand up between my legs and pressed his fingers inside. I love the way that feels, he said. Then he unzipped his trousers and pushed his penis into my hand. It tapped heavily against my palm.
I’m so ready, he said. Are you? Yes, I said, and opened my legs for him. Say fuck me, he said so I did.
And he does, in the process managing to whack her head against the pillar as he climaxes and ruining her new leather jacket against the rough wall. Then he dumps her in a cab where she sits gathering her thoughts and feeling his ejaculate ooze from her. We’re only six pages into this novel, two of which are white space, and it all goes downhill from here. You can only imagine where Meg allows herself to be led over the next 198 pages. Put it this way, if what you’ve just read disturbs, upsets or offends you then stop reading this now because this is not the book for you.
I saw a film a while ago called Requiem for a Dream based on the novel of the same name by Hubert Selby, Jr. which shows how the lives of four people are utterly destroyed due to various forms of addiction. The director, Darren Aronofsky, had this to say about his film:
Requiem for a Dream is not about heroin or about drugs… The Harry-Tyrone-Marion story is a very traditional heroin story. […] But putting it side by side with the Sara story, we suddenly say, 'Oh, my God, what is a drug?'
The idea that the same inner monologue goes through a person's head when they're trying to quit drugs, as with cigarettes, as when they're trying to not eat food so they can lose 20 pounds, was really fascinating to me. — Jeff Stark, ‘It’s a punk movie’, Salon, 13th October 2000
Deborah Kay Davies could say much the same about her book. This is not a book about sex although there is a lot of sex in it and some rather unpleasant sex too. The descriptions are graphic but not pornographic. She describes what goes on, what is said, what is done to Meg, but the intent is not to titillate, merely to record. This is where a first person narrator is essential. The book would lose much of its power if told by a third party.
Some people do bad things, some simply make bad choices — they’re not bad people — they allow bad things to happen. The question that refused to go away, from the start of the book to the very end, was: WHY? Why does she get involved with the man in the first place? Why does she go back for more? Why when things start to move in a direction she is uncomfortable with does she not get out? It’s not as if she’s on drugs. One could understand if she was on drugs. But then why do women who’ve lived in an abusive relationship jump straight back into another and then another?
We never find out. We do get to see her parents. They’re parents; not very interesting; the kind to express concern but not likely to do much to help. Or do they realise that someone needs to need to be helped before any offer of help would mean anything? People who try to quit drinking or smoking for someone else usually fall back into old habits. You have to do it for yourself. But what if you’re not worth doing it for? What then?
The other book this reminded me of is Janice Galloway’s The Trick is to Keep Breathing. In that book we see someone not coping with the loss of a loved one and falling into depression and anorexia. That book was a better read for me because we were helped to understand why the protagonist – ironically called Joy – is behaving the way she does. Her response to death is not reasonable but it is believable. The only thing that I could say about Meg is that she is reacting to the stultifying monotony of her life.
If we don’t learn much about Meg then what about “him” as she refers to the man? Put it this way, he doesn’t like being asked questions. After a day out, where he avoids paying the bill and they have sex round the side of a pub (during which she cuts her cheek on the pebbledash), she invites him to stay for the evening:
You can relax and watch TV. He stood and tapped the gatepost, he was already turning away. No, he said. I’ve got stuff to do. He was gazing down the street. What sort of stuff? I said. He looked at me without speaking. Then he pointed his finger at me. You need to be very careful about that, he said. Then he walked away. About what? I called after him.
So we learn nothing about him except what she sees or experiences. He tells her nothing. He begins to come and go as he pleases. He borrows her car and never returns it. She starts to get in trouble at work because of too much time off. It’s the civil service so they go through the whole procedure by the book — verbal warnings, written warnings — but it’s only a matter of time before she’s going to lose her job, we all know that. She stops going out — he likes her to be at his beck and call — and soon her life, who she is, was and might be, is being consumed by this man who gives nothing bar sex — and sex on his terms and to his tastes — in return.
We know this is going to end badly. And it does. The ending is not inevitable but by the time we’re a hundred-odd pages into the book we can see that her options are vanishing as is her capacity to take advantage of any window of opportunity that might come her way. She could run away — both Alison and her parents have offered her sanctuary (that said he does know where her parents live) — she could tell him to leave her alone (like that’s going to happen), she could kill him or be killed by him or end up in a mental institution or something equally horrible. I’m not going to tell you. Suffice to say when the book was over I was glad it was over. I really didn’t want to see her go through any more.
In an interview in The Short Review the interviewer asked the following question:
TSR: What does the word "story" mean to you?
DKD: Ouch, difficult question. Something you fall into and claw your way up from? Something you dive into and swim about in? Something you walk through and stumble out of? I don't have a definitive answer. Something that speaks to you, that you care about, that stays with you. Or not...
Did I care about what she was putting Meg through? Not really. I was angry with Meg. I wanted to give her a good shake. I wanted to intervene. I was angry too with her ineffectual friends and family. The man I had less of a problem with. You don’t blame the train for crashing into you, you should know better than to be mucking about on the train lines.
I had a similar problem with M J Hyland’s book This is How, which I read recently, because, just like Camus does in The Outsider, the reader is kept at a distance. We are allowed to watch and deduce but that’s as far as we get to go. One of the quotes on the back of the book is by Niall Griffiths, author of Grits, who says: “True Things About Me has a kind of Greek tragedy inexorability about it which made my scalp tingle and palms sweat.” I get that. It’s not the gods, nor destiny but inevitability that’s at work here though. Popping a pill takes no thought and very little effort, even less effort than dropping your knickers in a car park, and we know where that can lead. So is the end of this book inevitable? No, she could have gone home after page 6, taken a shower, washed her skirt and enjoyed the recklessness of the moment. She could have thrown his address in the trash but as soon as we saw her putting it in a drawer then it was only a matter of time.
To be fair I found this book to be a fast-paced page-turner. None of the chapters are long and they all have headings like ‘I go underground’, ‘I don’t value my possessions’ and ‘I serve my usual nibbles’ To be fair the true things of the title To be fair which reminded me of the titles of the episodes of Friends. The fact that everyone, even Meg, is kept at arm’s length makes me think that really what we have here is an everywoman, or I suppose everyperson. The book is not without its humour To be fair I can’t pretend the chapter where she chastises Alison’s kids with a French loaf isn’t funny To be fair but that’s not what you take away from it. And frankly the sadomasochistic sex isn’t that memorable either apart from one scene with a beer bottle. Most of the book Meg is in limbo, waiting for him, waiting to get her act together, waiting for her friends to say enough is enough, waiting on an opportunity, simply waiting . . . for him.
The book is well written with an effective use of imagery. What isn’t said is what Davis has chosen not to say. It’s not sloppy writing. Chick lit it is not. Yes, good girl meets bad boy but there’s no reforming the bad boy in this book. This is an uncomfortable and frighteningly plausible read despite my reservations about the lack of backstory. If this book is a train wreck then what we get to watch is someone clawing their way through the wreckage and we can’t do a damn thing but watch.
Deborah has an MA in the Teaching and Practice of Creative Writing and a PhD in Creative and Critical Writing from Cardiff University. She has taught Creative Writing at Cardiff University and the University of Glamorgan. She was awarded an Arts Council of Wales New Writer's Bursary in 1994, a Writer's Bursary in 1999 and an Academi Writer's Bursary in 2005.
Her first collection of poetry, Things You Think I Don't Know, was published by Parthian in 2006. Her stories have been published in Mslexia, Planet, New Welsh Review and broadcast on BBC Radio 4. She is a three-time winner in the Rhys Davies competition.