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Saturday, September 10, 2016

'Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil' by Melina Marchetta

From the BLURB:

Melina Marchetta's gripping new novel Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil is a cracking fusion of suspense and heart-rending drama.

Chief Inspector Bish Ortley of the London Met, divorced and still grieving the death of his son, has been drowning his anger in Scotch. Something has to give, and he’s no sooner suspended from the force than a busload of British students is subject to a deadly bomb attack across the Channel. Bish’s daughter is one of those on board.

Also on the bus is Violette LeBrac. Raised in Australia, Violette has a troubled background. Thirteen years ago her grandfather bombed a London supermarket, killing dozens of people. Her mother, Noor, is serving a life sentence in connection with the incident. But before Violette’s part in the French tragedy can be established she disappears.

Bish, who was involved in Noor LeBrac’s arrest, is now compelled to question everything that happened back then. And the more he delves into the lives of the family he helped put away, the more he realises that truth wears many colours.

‘Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil’ is the new novel from Australian author Melina Marchetta.

This latest book is another about-turn for beloved Marchetta, who burst onto the publishing scene with award-winning young adult book ‘Looking for Alibrandi’ in 1992, followed by more YA fare in ‘Saving Francesca’ and Printz-winning ‘On the Jellicoe Road’ (which also has a companion early-reader in ‘The Gorgon in the Gully’). In 2010 she came out with a sort-of sequel to ‘Saving Francesca’ with ‘The Piper’s Son’, which was long-listed for the Miles Franklin award … she then broke away from YA and contemporary tales with critically-acclaimed high-fantasy series ‘Lumatere Chronicles’ spanning three books. And now with ‘Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil,’ Marchetta is breaking new ground yet again – with an adult crime/mystery-thriller, which I think proves her to be Australia’s most versatile author writing today.  

I’ve now re-read this book three times in three months (as I was kindly given an advance copy) – and I’m continually surprised by how much I love it, and new facets I come to admire and uncover in the story. For anyone who is mildly concerned that they won’t get as much enjoyment out of a Melina novel that’s not in the usual genre or readership for her, let me assure you there’s absolutely nothing to worry about – and also, there’s no such thing as “usual” when talking about Melina Marchetta anymore. And that’s a good thing.

For one thing – Marchetta has always written mysteries. From Josie Alibrandi’s parentage, to the truth of Taylor Markham’s abandonment by her mother and how she came to catch a train with Jonah Griggs when they were 14-years-old, even Lumatere Chronicles’ cryptic “there's a babe in my belly that whispers the valley,” and the curse that was lifted … it’s true that most every story ever told has a mystery somewhere at its centre, and Marchetta’s novels have been no different over time. It’s just that in ‘Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil’ she’s really immersing the novel in mystery-thriller as the pivot-point.

But Marchetta’s books – whether contemporary, high fantasy, or now crime-thriller –her books will have family at the centre, always and forever. ‘Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil’ is at once about Chief Inspector Bish Ortley, suspended from the London Met and investigating a bomb attack that came very close to killing his own daughter … but there’s more to the story of Bish; his broken marriage and ex-wife who’s about to give birth to another man’s child, and his daughter – Bee – who has been drifting away from all of them since a terrible accident years ago, and his mother Saffron who has only just come into her own as a grandmother when she was never the maternal sort with Bish growing up. The Ortley’s are one side of this coin, on the other are the LeBrac and Sarraf’s – whom Bish believes to be a deadly crime family paying their dues and serving apt life-sentences for a terrorist act carried out just over a decade ago. But as he starts digging he finds a family full of tragedy and love, history and mystery that needs unravelling – with roots in Alexandria and the Algerian War, who were once a British immigrant success story, condemned in a trial-by-media …

Five dead. More injured. Some badly. It's what happened when you were the son of Louise Sarraf: you became obsessed with victims and numbers and how many people were affected. One dead man meant kids and a wife and parents and brothers and sisters and in-laws and nieces and nephews. Injured kids meant the same. A mother. Father. Two sets of grandparents. Approximately seven aunts and uncles and at least fourteen cousins. Not to mention friends ... Jamal had become a mathematician after his father blew up their lives. The figured tallied based on twenty-three fatalities fucked with his head every time. 

And for those upset that Marchetta has broken away from her YA roots … not quite, either. For one thing – I don’t think Melina is physically capable of not writing about teenagers and young people. And that’s because she clearly has such deep respect for them, and interest in them. When family is always at the heart of her stories, she pays dividends to the important role that younger generation’s play within this dynamic – and that’s never truer than in ‘Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil’ which is inverting the whole “sins of the father” question, by giving real agency (and the entire pivot-point of the mystery) around young people whose family was torn apart, and who have lived in the fallout of their absence ever since. I don’t want to give too much away about the roles that teenagers plays in this book, except to say that it feels somewhat revolutionary for Melina Marchetta to be bringing them into the mystery-thriller genre as agents of change in the plot, instead of – as is usually the case – purely victims of abuse and neglect. As someone who reads a lot of crime and mystery novels, I can tell you this is not always the case … and actually what Marchetta has done is extraordinarily rare and, quite frankly, brilliant.

Later, restless and desperate not to have a drink, Bish scoured the news online. The Guardian, Al Jazeera, the New York Times. The Australian media hadn't made up their mind how they felt yet. At the moment they were identifying Violette as "the British-born French-Arab LeBrac, who went by the name Zidane, which belonged to her Algerian grandmother." Bish couldn't think of how many more hyphens and details they could use to distance themselves from the world's least favourite teenager. What country did Violette LeBrac Zidane belong to? On Twitter, #princec2 was the most eloquent: "She's Australian, you fuckers." 

The other thing I really want to say about Marchetta bringing her voice to this genre is in the character of Bashir “Bish” Ortley. Male leads in mystery-thrillers are nothing new, and quite frankly I’m a bit over them … I tend to gravitate more towards books in this genre with female leads (Dr. Sara Linton in Karin Slaughter’s books, Rev. Clare Fergusson in Julia Spencer-Fleming’s etc). And there was a part of me, when I started reading ‘Tell the Truth’ that was worried Bish would be more of the same that this genre tends to produce – old, grizzled, alcoholic, over-the-hill cop with a heart of gold and inexplicable sway over the opposite sex … but again, this is Marchetta we’re talking about. I came away from this novel with a real appreciation for how much the women steer the story – and Bish. From Noor LeBrac and Violette Zidane to Bish’s mother Saffron, his daughter Bee, wife Rachel, a whip-smart solicitor called Layla Barat ... Bish may be the character we follow for most of the story (with a few chapters from others’) and he may be Chief Inspector Ortley doing all the gum-shoeing on this case, but he’s very much being led by the women. Because they’re smart. And fierce. They know what they want – and they go after it. Bish is really just along for the ride and at their mercy, because the women always rule in a Melina Marchetta novel. Always. And Bish is the better for it by book's end, and I came to completely admire him. 

There’s just something about this novel that has stuck with me, and I can’t shake this feeling of deep gratitude – for another brilliant story from this writer who means so much to me – but also for this story that got me thinking so deeply about issues that are impacting the world today … So much is touched on here; refugees and asylum seekers, trial by media, the dubious justice of anti-terror laws and torture, Islamophobia, vigilantism and social-media, the creep of political power-plays, and so much more. Something about this book and Marchetta’s writing in this genre reminds me of ‘The Secret in Their Eyes’ by Eduardo Sacheri (which has been adapted into two films, but I prefer the 2009 Argentine/Spanish version) – in that layering of the personal and criminal, suspense in the crime itself as well as the hair-trigger personalities of the players involved … Marchetta feels utterly at home in this genre, like she’s been writing in it all her life (which she has, to a degree) and I can only hope this isn’t the last we’ll see of Bish Ortley and co. There are certainly seeds and threads planted in this book – particularly around the lawless treatment of asylum seekers who are stuck in limbo, and preyed upon for it – that feels like fertile and important ground for more mystery-thriller tales. Displacement, home, identity, and family – nobody writes about this better than Marchetta for me, and her bringing these themes to this genre is acknowledging something truly profound.

There’s so much I loved in this book – not least was the way it fits for me, like a puzzle piece within Marchetta’s other stories … there are lines here connecting them all for me, so I can see exactly how writing all those others bought Marchetta to this book, at this point in time. I loved that Violette Zidane feels like she’d get along like a house on fire with Josie Alibrandi, Francesca Spinelli and especially Taylor Markham. Charlie Crombie was a little shit, but then again I thought Jonah Griggs was too – at first. I loved Layla and Jamal as fiercely as I loved Georgie and Sam from ‘Piper’s Son,’ as much as Trevanion and Beatriss from the ‘Lumatere Chronicles’ – because the good ones don’t come easy. I loved reading the family history of the LeBrac and Sarraf’s, as much as I adored when Froi once told the complicated history of his family to Arjuro, which he concluded by saying; “I'd live it again just to have crossed all of your paths.” But most of all I think I loved how ‘Tell the Truth, Shame the Devil’ can be seen as sitting alongside ‘The Piper's Son’ – examining a very different angle of a terror tragedy. And while it wasn’t the same London tragedy that took Joe away from them, part of me hopes the Mackee’s would be the sort to forgive and make peace with a family who ended up suffering just as much …


Tell The Truth, Shame The Devil out in the US on October 11

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