The Truth Teller by Katherine Govier

The Truth Teller

byKatherine Govier

Paperback | May 1, 2001

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Katherine Govier was immersed in writing a magazine article for Toronto Life about violent girl gangs when she realized she wanted to use the material in a novel. Having two teenaged children at home allowed her to eavesdrop as she researched the characters for her novel. One character in particular intrigued her: Cassandra, the truth teller.

In The Truth Teller, the Manor School for Classical Studies is an exclusive private institution in a leafy enclave of Toronto, dedicated to redeeming the wayward children of the well-to-do. For generations, Headmaster Dugald Laird and his wife, Francesca Morrow, united by romance and a common purpose, have laboured to fill their students' hearts and minds with the ideals of truth and beauty. Now, increasingly, the classes only divide the students' time between cigarette breaks, graffiti wars and drug deals; the teenagers have "headphones clamped to their ears and rings pierced into their crotches," and a habit of carving their own flesh. Enter the new girl, Cassie. Overweight, unfashionable and nervous, she also has an annoying habit of blurting out uncomfortable truths. Offering assistance during a savage street fight, she is recruited into the rebel girl gang known as the Dead Ladies.

Meanwhile, cracks are beginning to show in the perfect marriage shared by Dugald and Francesca. Dugald is haunted by memories. As if waking from a dream, he realizes that, immersed in his love for ideals, the classics, and Francesca, he has left behind what now seems so real – the family he spurned fifty years ago. For her part, Francesca is convinced Dugald's spirit will be revived during the school’s annual pilgrimage to the ancient ruins of Delphi. Under the hot Greek sun, however, the fabric of illusion will be burned away.

The Truth Teller, Govier's sixth novel, became a national bestseller. Reviewers describe her as a novelist at the height of her powers, whose skill and imagination were in full force as she fashioned a complex story around deeply drawn, memorable characters. With characteristic energy, wit and insight she explores today's urban life, revealing the intimate moments that shape our lives and define our times. The novel is tinged by a subtle apocalyptic vision, revealed through the "junk world" of the teenagers, and set against the beauty of a culture two thousand years old.

The novel is also richly coloured by Govier's travels in Greece and by allusions to classical literature. In ancient Greece, Cassandra was the young priestess of Apollo who foresaw Troy’s doom; Apollo's curse left Cassandra able to see the future but never to be believed by those she tried to warn. Govier casts her, in this contemporary tale, as a rebel girl, modelled on city squeegee kids with "turquoise hair and tattoos." Cassie carries the weight of her ancient past, reminding us, as Gary Draper noted in Books in Canada, that Govier's stories often work simultaneously as naturalistic fiction and as fables.

About The Author

Katherine Govier is an acclaimed novelist, short-story writer and journalist, born and raised in Alberta and currently living in Toronto. She is the author of eight novels and three short story collections, and is the editor of two collections of travel essays. She is the winner of the Marian Engel Award (for a woman writer in mid-care...

interview with the author

1) Can you tell us how you became a writer?

It was definitely my second choice. I wanted to be a dancer for most of the years when I was growing up. But my mother was a great reader, and read to my sisters and I, and eventually I began to write, and by the time I went to university and realized I was not going to be Galina Ulanova, I decided to write. I studied English literature at university and, as important or even more so, cut my teeth by writing and publishing magazine journalism. This gave me a passport into people’s lives and great experience seeing my words in print, as well as a bit of money and the right to call myself a writer.

2) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told?

The Truth Teller comes out of my love of Greek sculpture, my retrospective admiration for some wonderful and eccentric teachers I’ve had in my life, and some exploration into the world of teenage girls. What brings all this together? A small private school for off-track teenagers and a trip to Greece. Cassandra is the truth teller, and she was, I think, a teenage girl--- she saw and understood the worst of what was coming, but no one would listen to her warnings. I think that’s true of many girls today who are rebellious.

3) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?

I suppose it’s Cassie but I am very partial to Miss Morrow and to Dugald as well. Amelia is a trouble-maker and you need them, but you don’t really have to like them.

4) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book?

Not really. Go with your strong reactions, whatever they are, and go with the differing opinions between members of the group.

5) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?

My favourite event so far with this book was a reading where there were a lot of adults and a high school class showed up with their teacher. The grade twelve girls, having read the book, dominated the question period. They started with, "How can these kids be so smart and so dumb at the same time?" All the adults roared with laughter, as this is how most young people are (older ones too maybe.)

6) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?

I can’t think of one. Maybe I don’t like questions much. Certainly not the obvious ones. I like conversation a lot, but two way ones are better. I do not like being put on the spot.

7) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?

Not that I can think of. I do wish my work were treated more as writing as less as some kind of secret code to explain my life. If the media, even the supposedly serious Globe and Mail, had as much to say about my ideas or my writing style as they do about divorce, my kids, their imagined "cle" or key to the roman a cle which they believe I have written, I might learn from them. I actually got an email from a Globe reporter this year saying, we had a big discussion in the newsroom about the colour of your eyes, are they green or blue? I would be happier if they had a big discussion about my writing, frankly.

8) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?

Many, many fiction writers, who I read once or several times, in phases- and non fiction writers too. Just off the top of my head-Wallace Stegner, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Philip Gourevitch, Alice Munro. There is no rhyme or reason to what I read. I read in all genres and styles, except for mysteries, thrillers and romances, none of whom I enjoy. When there is too much suspense I get uncomfortable and feel rushed. I would rather savour great sentences. I am now reading (at the same time) Anne Carson’s "novel in poetry"-- The Beauty of the Husband and Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I admire the versatility of certain English women writers, most recently, Rose Tremaine, who has written so many very different novels, from Restoration, a very detailed historical fiction, to The Swimming Pool Season, short stories in contemporary settings, to The Way I Found Her, the story of a fourteen year old boy who has a brief love affair with a much older woman in Paris.

9) If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?

Since I did not become a dancer I became a writer. I love writing but I miss the costumes - leg warmers, wrap around sweaters, cancan skirts, tap shorts. My other passion at the moment is martial arts. I study Iado, which is the sword art of the samurai, and kobudo, which is practiced with other weapons made of wood. I have tendonitis in my left arm as a result. These are classical Japanese martial arts and involve a lot of ritual and etiquette. In a way it’s like meditation. And we do wear costumes. I am not particularly deadly as of yet but I’m getting there. If I had lived in sixteenth century Japan I would have been a samurai. Certainly not a geisha. If I did not of the above, and lived today, and did not write, I might have been a psychotherapist.

10) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?

It’s hard to imagine writing someone else’s book. It would be a different book if I wrote it, wouldn’t it? I am envious of the lives of some of the "first" Europeans to visit far flung ports - so I would have loved to be a traveler-explorer-writer like, for instance, Merriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition, or Lafcadio Hearn, who traveled before other Europeans got to Japan. I liked Parallel Lives, Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose very much and thought it would have been fun to investigate those stories, first hand, at the time.

At the other end of the spectrum I loved Marguerite Duras’ The Lover and would like one day to write a book as spare and searing. I’m interested in life-long, defining partnerships between people-lovers, or friends, or parents and children. I’d like one day to write a biography of two creative artists who were lovers and did not destroy themselves or each other. Perhaps there are none. I will have to make them up. This is how fiction begins.
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Details & Specs

Title:The Truth TellerFormat:PaperbackDimensions:416 pages, 8 × 5.1 × 0.9 inPublished:May 1, 2001Publisher:Random House of CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0679310991

ISBN - 13:9780679310990

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Read from the Book

HEROES IN OUR PAST"Ladies and gentlemen. We have inherited a vision.”Dr. Laird’s voice resounded like the clapper of a bell, like the first chords of a hymn. Hearts rose to its beat. Backs straightened, chins lifted. Everyone knew what was to come. He always began that way. And his audience always sat on folding chairs, no less rapt for the discomfort or the repetition, which was anticipated, and annual. It was a glorious fall day. When was it not a glorious day for the Manor’s commencement exercises?October was perhaps a strange time for a commencement. School had been over for months; results were in; these students seated on stage were already history, off at universities across the country. But Commencement had always been on the third of October. To “commence” was not only to graduate, but to begin, and all beginnings at the Manor led back to the day Dr. Dugald Laird met Miss Francesca Morrow, his wife, Vice-Principal and Headmistress. Fifty years ago today fate caused their paths to cross right here on Taddle Creek Drive; they fell both in love and into eudaimonía, the state of being happy following their demons, in running the Manor School for Classical Studies in an unsuspecting Toronto.As if to catch the glory, the giant Norway maple dominating the terraced lawn had leaves of gold worthy of Byzantium. So thought Amelia, general factotum of the school, seated in the second row. Weeks ago, its big, waxy, five-point paws had begun to dazzle and twist in the light winds of early autumn; now one by one the thin red stems snapped from the branches, each leaf taking a zigzag, fitful journey to the ground. The palm-sized gilt was piled up around the tree’s enormous base. Gold above, gold below: it was as if, somewhere between sky and ground, there was the still, mirroring surface of an invisible lake.Yes, as Amelia knew, a glimmer of prehistoric water did lie at the foot of the lawn, for the Manor sat atop the Escarpment, that ragged, ten-metre cliff marking the shore of the once-great Lake Iroquois. Many millennia ago the lake shrank southward leaving the sloping flatlands, which had been its bottom, traversed with lush, deep ravines and shallow creeks. The natives grew rice on the shore, and dried their fish. When the British sailed up they decided to build a fort at the mouth of a creek, the one with a bend in its path. This creek came by the name of Taddle, some say, from the Tattle family, which homesteaded nearby. Others claim the name referred to the tadpoles inhabiting the water, still others that the name was an imitation of the sound of water running over rocks. Or it could have been a variant of “tattle,” a reference to the gossip exchanged on its banks.No matter: at its mouth were the beginnings of a great city.The sloping expanse between water and high ground began to fill with farms and wagons, with people and taverns. Amelia liked to picture it: the fields first ploughed and then paved; two hundred years passing until the people numbered two million, two and a half, plying trades from stock-trading to carpet-cleaning; the space clogged with factories, homes, a gothic pink-stone parliament, a glassed-in shopping mall and a streaming network of roads to carry those people back and forth. There were bank towers forty storeys high and ugly parking lots, but still there could be found gardens chock with roses and, in the deep ravines, vestiges of wilderness, foxes and even coyote. The city spread uphill unchecked, and along the banks of Taddle Creek were hospitals and museums and a university. The Taddle was buried as the clutter of untidy streets climbed to the escarpment, that old lake’s lip. But there, here, thought Amelia, above the cliff, at the headwaters of the creek, the city stopped. Was forced by both landscape and human foresight to turn aside. That seemingly unstoppable growth made a detour, leaving untouched this quiet enclave with its circle of homes, its huge old trees and its atmosphere of genteel withdrawal. Within that circle the Manor was the prettiest house, its stuccoed walls overgrown with creepers, its dormers snug with casement windows and the sloping roof rising in two levels to flow elegantly into the contours of the hill.Proud that the onrush of time might be slowed for even a breath, Amelia straightened her spine. Under the metallic slant of the October sun, students and parents listened with hands folded. Copies of Renaissance paintings flapped in the light breeze on the divider where they were displayed. Skirted martial artists with medieval bows bobbed on their toes on the side stairs, warming their tendons. Miranda and Prospero yawned and rolled their necks to prepare for their scene. And the old man waxed on. It hardly mattered what he said. He had said it last year and the year before and he would say it again next year. Though rapt, his audience was not listening to his words. It was listening instead to his heart; it was basking in his fervour, magnified as usual by the reverence of his wife, who gazed steadily at her husband, a small smile playing on her lips.

Bookclub Guide

1) Can you tell us how you became a writer? It was definitely my second choice. I wanted to be a dancer for most of the years when I was growing up. But my mother was a great reader, and read to my sisters and I, and eventually I began to write, and by the time I went to university and realized I was not going to be Galina Ulanova, I decided to write. I studied English literature at university and, as important or even more so, cut my teeth by writing and publishing magazine journalism. This gave me a passport into people’s lives and great experience seeing my words in print, as well as a bit of money and the right to call myself a writer.2) What inspired you to write this particular book? Is there a story about the writing of this novel that begs to be told? The Truth Teller comes out of my love of Greek sculpture, my retrospective admiration for some wonderful and eccentric teachers I’ve had in my life, and some exploration into the world of teenage girls. What brings all this together? A small private school for off-track teenagers and a trip to Greece. Cassandra is the truth teller, and she was, I think, a teenage girl--- she saw and understood the worst of what was coming, but no one would listen to her warnings. I think that’s true of many girls today who are rebellious.3) Who is your favourite character in this book, and why?I suppose it’s Cassie but I am very partial to Miss Morrow and to Dugald as well. Amelia is a trouble-maker and you need them, but you don’t really have to like them.4) Are there any tips you would give a book club to better navigate their discussion of your book? Not really. Go with your strong reactions, whatever they are, and go with the differing opinions between members of the group.5) Do you have a favourite story to tell about being interviewed about your book?My favourite event so far with this book was a reading where there were a lot of adults and a high school class showed up with their teacher. The grade twelve girls, having read the book, dominated the question period. They started with, "How can these kids be so smart and so dumb at the same time?" All the adults roared with laughter, as this is how most young people are (older ones too maybe.)6) What question are you never asked in interviews but wish you were?I can’t think of one. Maybe I don’t like questions much. Certainly not the obvious ones. I like conversation a lot, but two way ones are better. I do not like being put on the spot.7) Has a review or profile ever changed your perspective on your work?Not that I can think of. I do wish my work were treated more as writing as less as some kind of secret code to explain my life. If the media, even the supposedly serious Globe and Mail, had as much to say about my ideas or my writing style as they do about divorce, my kids, their imagined "cle" or key to the roman a cle which they believe I have written, I might learn from them. I actually got an email from a Globe reporter this year saying, we had a big discussion in the newsroom about the colour of your eyes, are they green or blue? I would be happier if they had a big discussion about my writing, frankly.8) Which authors have been most influential to your own writing?Many, many fiction writers, who I read once or several times, in phases- and non fiction writers too. Just off the top of my head-Wallace Stegner, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Philip Gourevitch, Alice Munro. There is no rhyme or reason to what I read. I read in all genres and styles, except for mysteries, thrillers and romances, none of whom I enjoy. When there is too much suspense I get uncomfortable and feel rushed. I would rather savour great sentences. I am now reading (at the same time) Anne Carson’s "novel in poetry"-- The Beauty of the Husband and Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I admire the versatility of certain English women writers, most recently, Rose Tremaine, who has written so many very different novels, from Restoration, a very detailed historical fiction, to The Swimming Pool Season, short stories in contemporary settings, to The Way I Found Her, the story of a fourteen year old boy who has a brief love affair with a much older woman in Paris.9) If you weren’t writing, what would you want to be doing for a living? What are some of your other passions in life?Since I did not become a dancer I became a writer. I love writing but I miss the costumes - leg warmers, wrap around sweaters, cancan skirts, tap shorts. My other passion at the moment is martial arts. I study Iado, which is the sword art of the samurai, and kobudo, which is practiced with other weapons made of wood. I have tendonitis in my left arm as a result. These are classical Japanese martial arts and involve a lot of ritual and etiquette. In a way it’s like meditation. And we do wear costumes. I am not particularly deadly as of yet but I’m getting there. If I had lived in sixteenth century Japan I would have been a samurai. Certainly not a geisha. If I did not of the above, and lived today, and did not write, I might have been a psychotherapist.10) If you could have written one book in history, what book would that be?It’s hard to imagine writing someone else’s book. It would be a different book if I wrote it, wouldn’t it? I am envious of the lives of some of the "first" Europeans to visit far flung ports - so I would have loved to be a traveler-explorer-writer like, for instance, Merriweather Lewis of the Lewis and Clark expedition, or Lafcadio Hearn, who traveled before other Europeans got to Japan. I liked Parallel Lives, Five Victorian Marriages by Phyllis Rose very much and thought it would have been fun to investigate those stories, first hand, at the time.At the other end of the spectrum I loved Marguerite Duras’ The Lover and would like one day to write a book as spare and searing. I’m interested in life-long, defining partnerships between people-lovers, or friends, or parents and children. I’d like one day to write a biography of two creative artists who were lovers and did not destroy themselves or each other. Perhaps there are none. I will have to make them up. This is how fiction begins.

Editorial Reviews

"Grand and comic — The Truth Teller possesses the intelligence and emotive power of a novel of ideas grounded in its characters' psychology and vivified by its language."—Maclean's"The Truth Teller is a pleasurable and stimulating read. Katherine Govier is at the top of her form — clever, subtle, observant.... The Truth Teller makes you reflect on the uneasy way that ideals and self-knowledge jostle in our personal and cultural psyches."—The Globe and Mail"A well-written and inventive piece of fiction by a novelist at the height of her creative powers."—National Post"A grand and comic, richly patterned novel. … [The Truth Teller] possesses the intelligence and emotive power of a novel of ideas grounded in its characters’ psychology."—Kerri Sakamoto, Time magazine"Katherine Govier is the kind of writer who, when you hear she has a new book coming out, makes you snap to attention. ... Govier will have secrets to reveal, things no one’s thought to tell you yet."—The Toronto Sun"Intelligent, well-crafted and wryly entertaining… a comic and original collection worthy of the best of Ann Beattie, Alison Lurie and Bonnie Burnard."—The London Free Press on The Immaculate Conception Photography Gallery