My debut novel, The Truth Will Out, began with a feeling. It was March 2020, a time of crisis and emergency, when a sense of foreboding dominated. The world had been upturned completely and the strangeness of those early pandemic days made me feel as if everything were dreamlike, as if I were looking through a veil of unreality.
Right through the crisis, there were people who believed that the nightly news was lying to them, that a conspiracy was afoot. Despite what all the experts said, despite all the accounts from care homes and hospitals, despite the people who died and families who grieved them, there were those who refused to believe what they were being told. To them, the pandemic was a lie spread for corrupt motives. Their truth was the real truth.
How can you argue with that? When we can no longer agree on the nature of our shared reality, how do we collectively differentiate fact from fiction? Truth from lie?
It is this difficulty which sits at the heart of my novel, The Truth Will Out, in which a group of actors are rehearsing a play about a boy’s death. The play tells the story of his final days but it’s written by one of the only witnesses to what happened and many claim — including the boy’s family — that it rewrites the past and masks the truth of his death. Faced with this controversy, the actors begin to feel reality shift under their feet, the characters they’re playing slowly pulling them apart, until they begin to lose their grasp on what is true and what is a lie.
The idea comes from Shakespeare that the truth will out, but it’s trickier than we like to admit. Finding truth in the midst of contradictions and sworn statements is the job of the law, but it often boils down to a matter of persuasion. Which witness do we believe? Which version of the facts do we trust? This puts the person telling the story in a position of particular power. It makes the question of who tells the story enormously important. In The Truth Will Out, the playwright has a vested interest in promoting a particular version of events as accurate — are the boys’ family right to disbelieve?
Unlike a book or a performance, in real life there is rarely a true ending. For every crime that is solved, there are countless others that are not, the truth of what really happened obscured by time and a lack of evidence. The person convicted of a crime often continues to protest their innocence for years after their last avenue of appeal has expired. For the victim of a crime, the trauma remains long after the court has risen. I’ve often wondered if it is the absence of satisfying endings in real life that makes us look for them in fiction.
When you study the law, you learn quickly that our system is, at essence, an imperfect effort to identify truth. The legal process is based on oral testimony, probing witness statements under oath, searching for inconsistencies and verifying evidence by other sources. It’s hard enough when someone is actually lying and harder still when a witness is truthfully misremembering. Witnesses can honestly and sincerely swear under oath that they saw something with their own eyes, only to be proved entirely wrong. The risk of false memories can make witness testimony unreliable. This is because memory decays over time and truth rots with it. The sincerity and certainty of the storyteller isn’t always enough.
In a modern world of misinformation, deep fakes, filters and autotune, you can’t necessarily believe your own eyes. In my novel, it’s this uncertainty which starts to pull at the cast of actors. They’re trying to inhabit characters who may or may not be lying, and struggling with the responsibility this entails. Will the process of becoming their characters erode their own sense of reality and truth? Does their role in the storytelling make them complicit in a lie? Are they implicitly endorsing the playwright’s version of events?
It is destabilising to find yourself suddenly unsure who or what to trust. We all share this experience from time to time. It’s so common a feeling that the term ‘gaslighting’ has been adopted to describe it. In telling a story of the fickle nature of truth, I was conscious of this reality, that the truth is never really settled, events in the past rarely lying still.
For the cast in The Truth Will Out, losing the thread of truth has deadly consequence and the stakes can be just as high in real life. Finding new ways to talk about this shifting truth will be the task of our age, but we have some tools available. Literature has always provided a vehicle to think about the more complex facets of life, to pull them apart and see how we feel about them. The novel can be used for deeper consideration of our human condition, beyond the hashtags and easy slogans, beyond the bright lines and primary colours. There’s a certain irony in using a work of fiction to think about the boundary between fiction and fact, blurring the line between the two even further. But maybe that’s the point. Life imitating art, or art imitating life.
(c) Rosemary Hennigan
The Truth Will Out by Rosemary Hennigan is published in trade paperback by Orion.
About The Truth Will Out:
‘Maybe I’ve told that version of the story so often, that I can’t remember the truth of it anymore.’
Dara Gaffney is fresh out of drama school when she lands the leading role in the revival of Eabha de Lacey’s hugely successful yet controversial play.
Based on the true story of the death of Cillian Butler, many claim that Eabha had an ulterior motive when she penned it. Cillian’s death remains a mystery to this day, and Eabha and her brother, Austin, the only witnesses.
As the media storm builds and the opening night draws closer, the cast find it harder and harder to separate themselves from the characters.
And as the truth of Cillian’s fate becomes clear, Dara’s loyalty to her role will be irrevocably questioned as the terrible history starts to repeat itself…
‘A confident, original new voice in Irish writing’ JANE CASEY
‘A clever premise, compelling characters and brilliantly plotted’ T. ORR MUNRO
‘Dark and masterly woven thriller…kept me on the edge of my seat until the very end’ NUALA ELLWOOD
‘Mysterious, tense and moreish’ DOIREANN NÍ GHRÍOFA
Order your copy online here.