The Roehampton Readers participated in the CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenway Children’s Book Awards as a shadowing group. Meeting at Roehampton University to discuss the books, their reviews were then posted to the shadowing site itself. Over this summer, we are sharing a selection of the reviews with you as part of the ongoing activity here at NCRCL. The Roehampton Readers group was coordinated by NCRCL PhD student, Kay Waddilove.
Review: All the Truth’s that In Me by Julie Berry
By Clare Walters
This is both a teen love story and a murder mystery, set in what appears to be a seventeenth century American Puritan village called Roswell Station. Four years before the novel begins, a 14-year-old girl called Lottie Pratt is murdered and her friend, Judith, the protagonist, is abducted. Two years later Judith returns to Roswell Station – minus part of her tongue. Silent, shunned and traumatised, Judith is a reclusive 18-year-old at the beginning of the story.
The novel is unusual in that it uses the ‘second person’ narrative form. That is, one of the main characters, Lucas – the object of Judith’s affections and the person to whom all her thoughts are addressed – is referred to primarily by the second-person pronoun ‘you’.* This gives the novel an epistolary feel, as if the central character were writing a letter, or telling her secrets to a diary. But early on the reader is made aware that, as a result of her inflicted injury, Judith cannot speak; nor can she write, owing to a minimal education. So it is clear the words on the page are Judith’s private thoughts, an interior dialogue with the man she has loved all her life.
This method of telling the story provides an intense intimacy, as if we, the readers, are literally inside Judith’s head. Because of this intimacy, Judith’s turbulent emotions of frustration, isolation and passion are rendered especially vivid. After her mutilation, the wider community of Roswell Station fear her, believing her silence indicates she is mentally defective and may even be cursed. But the reader shares Judith’s secret and knows that, rather than being a ‘half-wit’, she is intelligent, alert and hungry for knowledge.
Because the narrative stays focused entirely on Judith’s thoughts, there is a potential risk of the story becoming narrow and linear. But Berry maintains a varied change of pace by the inclusion of time-shift flashbacks to earlier periods, as Judith recalls snatches of events from her troubled past. These fractured memories provide clues to the present and, like pieces in a jigsaw, they help both Judith and the reader solve the mystery of exactly what happened on the night of Lottie’s death.
The novel is packed with racy action, from adultery, murder, assult and suspected rape, to full-on battle and courtroom showdown, enough drama for a modern-day soap opera. Yet each action has its own logic, stemming partly the nature of the restricted, highly conventional, society in which the novel is set – where prejudice and ignorance combine in a combustible cocktail – and partly from each character’s own personal flaws and strengths. A jealous man, driven wild by his wife’s adultery, becomes a recluse. An embittered mother, worn down by life’s hardships, rejects her child. A brave girl, constant in her love, wins her man.
Judith’s lack of speech is both physical and emotional, and the structure of the novel reflects this. Rather than traditional chapters, the book is divided into short, sometimes tentative, sections that echo the protagonist’s struggle to regain her voice and re-establish her confidence. Chapter titles are avoided, and instead each section is headed with a single Roman numeral. This not only allows for a smooth transition between sections, some of which are only a few lines long, but also subtly evokes a more traditional era in which Roman numerals were more widely used. Within each section, the sentences are short too, giving a choppy, almost breathy, sense of delivery.
But although the sentences are often brief, the writing style has a poetic quality to it. The action takes place in a community that is steeped in both the rhythms of the Bible and of the natural world, and the language Berry uses reflects these two pillars of life. With almost Biblical cadence, Judith says, ‘I’ve watched you open your door each morning, these two years since I came back. Watched your throat swallow cold creek water, heard your feet tread through the forest leaves, seen your hands steer the plough. Were all your labours and your living for nothing? All the beauty you brought into my life, shall it go unpaid?’ (page 63).
This poetic sensibility can also be seen in the use of lyrics and melody, for music speaks to Judith of past freedom and happiness. Prior to her mutilation, she sang with her father. And at the point at which she begins to regain some speech – when she is at last emerging from her virtual entombment – she recalls a love song he taught her and sings it afresh. ‘Again and again I sing, until the sound is limber, light and pure. What is this thing inside me that can make such sound, after so long? How could I have let it be stilled?’ (page 140) As well as the actual sentiments expressed, both the alliteration and the rhythm here emphasise the strength of Judith’s emotions and give the writing a memorable richness that lifts this novel out of the ordinary.
Although clearly set in the past, this tale deals with the universal themes of love, loyalty, courage, forgiveness and truth, which are perennially relevant to readers. There are also clear parallels with current twenty-first century issues. Girls, for instance, may identify with the right for women to be heard, to be educated and to be judged on an equal footing with men. Disabled readers may recognise Judith’s isolation. But it also portrays a society alien to our own current Western culture, particularly with regard to sexual mores, and this could challenge a young reader to engage with an alternative perspective. So, overall, I feel this book unequivocally meets the Carnegie aim of a book that shows ‘outstanding literary quality’ and that provides both ‘pleasure’ and ‘a real experience that is retained afterwards’.