In bookish synchronicity, when a friend and I met one summer morning to go book-shopping, each of us had begun reading A Beautiful Truth the previous evening.
We had both read only about 50 pages, so were hesitant to commit to loving it too soon, but we shared that excitement readers have when they think a book might turn out to be a favourite.
We spoke of being struck by a single detail that had pulled us into the story. “They painted the house a lighter blue.”
Then we were quiet for a moment, because it’s obvious that as much as this single sentence impressed us, there is nothing remarkable about the words which compose it.
How to explain the weight that such an innocuous detail can hold in the hands of a skilled storyteller.
And how to explain it when it was only the novel’s sixth sentence.
Perhaps this could not be explained, after only reading 50 pages of Colin McAdam’s novel.
After finishing A Beautiful Truth, however, it is clear that the author has a way of making simple words matter.
The novel begins with Walt and Judy in Vermont. Readers meet them in the first sentence, and they have only known them for a few lines when a great sadness about their life is shared.
When we learn what colour their house has been painted, that detail is imbued with sorrow. The words hold more than it seems possible for them to hold.
Readers might see similarities in prose style with the works of David Bergen, Dionne Brand, Thomas King: authors whose dialogue is credible, certainly, but whose straight narrative, too, seems to speak aloud. (You can read an excerpt through Soho Press, here.)
Well, the parts of the story which are told from the perspective of Walt and Judy have this inviting rhythm.
It’s not a predictable sort of construction, mind you. So three long sentences open the novel, phrase stacked upon phrase. The next paragraph’s three sentences fit into two lines of text.
The rhythm is in the telling. Colin McAdam spends a lot of time at the sentence-level of the work. (I haven’t read his other novels, but I picked up a copy of Some Great Thing recently and although it is styled very differently, language is vitally important: sentences are crafted.)
And, then, there is no rhythm to the telling.
At least, the rhythm alters substantially. The second chapter notes a shift from Vermont to Florida, and the voice is different. Because the first chapter ends with Walt and Judy buying a baby chimp, readers figure that might be a clue to understanding this change.
But where this voice is familiar, similar, it is just slightly askew. (Perhaps as different as human DNA from a chimpanzee’s DNA, although it is 98% shared.) The syntax seems awkward, the tone observant but unadorned, the arc is not-an-arc.
“The World became the World. For a time there was also Billie, Rosie and Bongo, but they all left the World.”
It is slightly disorienting. And it is deliberate.
These segments of the narrative remind readers that there remains a gap in understanding, that we are responsible for not only observing but comprehending, that we are not always the observers ourselves but also the observed.
(There is more to it, too, but I want to avoid spoilers. But I will say that I love that the novel ends with one of these segments. A Beautiful Truth not only showcases two different voices, but it begins with one and ends with the other, so that the story might spiral back to the beginning and comprise something whole.)
“She [Judy] felt aware of other realities: that what she saw was not the whole truth, or what other people saw was simply not her truth. It was a lonely feeling.”
So back to those short sentences and the innocuous structure and wording, however, back to those opening sentences, to a voice that readers recognize and understand.
As much as there is great sadness there, in the house paint, there is also great love contained and evidenced in the seventeen words alongside.
If readers already know that this novel considers, in part, the experiences of chimpanzees in an American research facility, sadness about cruelty is anticipated (perhaps you grew up sobbing over animal stories like Old Yeller).
But the story contains the gamut of emotions. For instance, Walt and Judy’s marriage is enduring and nurturing, something readers don’t often find in contemporary fiction.
There is as much hope as despair in this story: readers can debate the balance, but both are present.
(And just as readers can debate that balance, there are essential plot points which readers can also debate. This novel would make a terrific choice for a bookclub or group discussion: there is much to consider and the work would be a pleasure to contemplate and re-read.)
Language, voice, characters: A Beautiful Truth is saturated, rich, weighty.
“Survival isn’t always an act of will, and when she realized that, when she was carried through the years and felt healed, she began to see beauty in all those things we try to run away from. There was beauty in the loss of beauty, in loneliness, in sorrow, some inarticulate vitality that was greater than the celebrated signs of joy, a different joy not obvious but more constant. To see herself as a body in the mirror, death in the middle of life, was to see a beautiful truth. This is me and it is not how I see myself.”
So, yes, Colin McAdam has a way of making simple words matter. Words like ‘survival’ and ‘beauty’ and ‘truth’.
He also has a way of reminding readers that there is nothing simple about that kind of storytelling.
“You can adjust, instead of accepting, and you can make your own world.”
My friend bought a copy as a birthday gift that same day, even on the strength of 50 pages, and I suspect we will be buying a few more to pass along.
Colin McAdam’s A Beautiful Truth: the best stories remind you to make your own world.
Note: Buying a copy of this novel through this link to an independent bookseller directs 50% of the sale’s profits to Save the Chimps. Soho Press has pledged a portion of proceeds from the sale of each copy of this novel to Save the Chimps, but the above link donates a greater percentage to the world’s largest chimpanzee sanctuary.