May 19th, 2003
I first picked up Jennifer Clement’s novel A True Story Based on Lies one late afternoon in San Miguel de Allende last autumn while browsing in the excellent ‘Tecolcote’ bookshop just around the corner from where noisy long-tailed grackles were roosting in the jardín. Of course, I’m now back in the UK where Canongate published a paperback edition earlier this year and I read it last week.
The story explores the overlapping lives of masters and servants in a well-to-do Mexican household that rapidly unravel after a sexual relationship between Leonora, a young servant with a smattering of a convent education, and her ‘master’ leads to the birth of a daughter, Aura.
At 164 pages, the novel is short (but still made the Orange Prize ‘longlist’ in 2002) and the reader is given scant detail to help build up a picture of the house, and we learn that Mr O’Conner is a lawyer who often “does not come home until very late” but not much else. Instead, the dual narratives and unsentimental prose poetry draw the reader into a world of rumours, lies, pain and injustice, as well as exposing the darker issue of violence against women behind closed doors – something only beginning to be recognised in Mexico.
Equally set in her ways is the kindly “middle-aged” cook, Sofia (“who smelled like garlic, cumin and oregano”), with whom Leonora shares a room on the roof. Predictably, she is reproachful after Leonora reveals that she is pregnant, but it was Leonora’s mother who had instructed her three young daughters “always to say ‘yes’…” as she had packed them off to convent. Of course, it suits the O’Conners that Leonora stays, and that her daughter, Aura, is brought up as their own. The alternating chapters track Leonora’s induction into domestic work and the consequences of the encounter with Mr O’Conner but is particularly effective in subsequently exploring her daughter’s innocence and unique freedom to wander both ‘upstairs’ and ‘downstairs’. Leonora, however, must silently savour every scrap of the child’s affection until this becomes too much for her to bear.
Clement is a poet, biographer and novelist raised in Mexico City, which is where she now lives and her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. She is director of the San Miguel Poetry Week, which she founded in 1997 with her poet-sister, Barbara Sibley. Canongate will publish this paperback in the US next month but it is already available from Amazon (UK and US).
Filed in Books