Book Review: Life After Truth by Ceridwen Dovey

Written by Tian Hunt

Life After Truth is Ceridwen Dovey’s fourth novel, following her critically acclaimed works: Blood KinOnly the Animals, and In the Garden of the Fugitives. Born South African, Dovey spent time in both South Africa and Australia when she was growing up. She studied social anthropology and creative writing at Harvard University and New York University, respectively.

Dovey’s experimental and high style literary fiction has garnered much critical acclaim over a decade-long career. Her books deal with themes of power, privilege, politics, and the complex nature of the human psyche. 

Life After Truth begins with the Harvard Class of 2003 anniversary report and the public entries of the central characters fifteen years after graduation. The book follows blockmates and friends—Jomo, Jules, Eloise, Mariam, and Rowan—who are attending their reunion weekend. Jomo owns a bespoke jewellery start-up and travels the world acquiring precious gemstones for the ultra-rich. Jules is a world-famous actress ; Eloise—a Professor of Hedonism at Harvard and bestselling author of self-help books. Mariam and Rowan are happily married with two young children: she—a stay-at-home mum, he—a school principal. Frederick Reese is the President’s son and central to the plot, as the story begins with his untimely death on reunion weekend. Narration switches between the protagonists each chapter, although Jules and Frederick are never given voices of their own. 

This wealthy and highly educated ensemble include some diversity. Mariam and Rowan are middle-class and conscious of their part in gentrifying the community of Bushwick where they live. Eloise is married to her younger wife, Binx. Their relationship is accessible, until Binx is introduced as a post-humanist, trust-fund kid building an AI fembot based on Eloise’s personality. They are also having a surrogate baby; however, Eloise spends the majority of the novel acutely self-aware of the ethical implications in this.

Despite the opening premise of murder, the book isn’t a mystery. It exists somewhere between drama and self-help. Dovey attempts to create a contemporary and relatable work of fiction for those navigating an approaching midlife crisis. Rowan emphasises early on: ‘At the fifteen-year mark, the tone began to change. The entries were split between who kept going on with the charade of their lives being perfect and those who were ready to tell it how it was’. 

The glittering lights of Harvard are behind the central characters as they approach their forties—a seemingly relatable concept. Yet, the characters themselves seem wildly out of reach for anyone who didn’t graduate from Harvard. Or rub shoulders with famous actresses, hedonistic professors, and trust-fund kids. 

The novel hinges on the varying public and private lives of each character and the disjuncture between the two. Although the language, style, and tone are constructed expertly by Dovey, she fails to drown out the characters’ overarching privilege, rendering them unrelatable. Their self-aware internal monologues do offer some solace and insight into the complex nature of a post-capitalist society. Eloise tortures herself in a beauty salon: ‘She breathed deeply and tried to ignore that she was paying a woman to wash her feet. It was wrong at so many levels … was it so very different from the rich women of Ancient Rome having their bodies pampered by slaves?’. Meanwhile, Jomo revels in the duality of his own success: ‘Given that in his own work—creating luxury jewellery for the highest end of the market—he was enriching himself by ravaging the earth’.   

Dovey has expressed that this novel is a departure from her earlier literary works, written with a more commercial premise in mind. The plot captures a pervasive anxiety and turmoil at the forefront of the American psyche under President Donald Trump (presented as President Reese in the novel). The novel is loosely based on Dovey’s own experience—she graduated from Harvard in 2003 alongside actress Natalie Portman and Jared Kushner (Donald Trump’s son-in-law). Post-truth exists in many forms throughout the novel, shifting and moulding with the character’s personal troubles and ruminations each chapter. Each contemplates the power, privilege, irony, and information available to them in the modern world. Ultimately, it is a ‘What if?’ or ‘Whodunnit?’ for those agonising on the indeterminable swings of American politics. 

Life After Truth was released on 3rd November 2020 and is available for purchase here.

Tian is a final year creative writing student at Deakin University. She likes chai lattes, writing short fiction and reading books. 

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