21 October 2007

Jennifer Clement, A True Story Based on Lies, 2001

This book is not as difficult to pin down as its title suggests, so simple is its structure of dual narratives and yet so beguiling and engrossing is the nature of the poetic language Clement uses. A True Story Based on Lies explores the consequences of a brief sexual relationship between Leonora, a fifteen year-old native servant in a wealthy modern household in Mexico City, and Mr. O’Conner, her master. But when a child is born from this union she is raised as an adopted daughter of the house, while Leonora is expected to abandon any hope of true motherhood and merely remain the servant to the manipulations of Mrs. O’Conner, all pointing to one, possibly inevitable and tragic, conclusion.

Leonora is an innocent victim of adult games several times over, but this is not a mysogynist piece of fiction, indeed all the women of the house maintain this deception not only for the sake of their masters’ saving face, but because the alternative is Leonora returning to poverty and her child begging on the streets. The narratives contain plenty of native Indian ‘knowledge’ and other quirky strangeness, plus the right amount of pathos that imbues the Mexican servants of the house with as much dignity as innocence. Further, it describes a situation that must be common the whole world over, not just to Latin America. Certainly one of the best – and in the story’s very clever and economical telling, most original – books I’ve read this year.   PY

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