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The Truth Teller

by Katherine Govier

Katherine Govier’s ambitious sixth novel is so rich in literary allusions that tossing another reference into the mix seems unwarranted. Yet I’m tempted to read this book as a fictional variation on the themes of The Education of Henry Adams, that key text of the 1920s. As Adams questioned the relevance of his education to the machine age, so Govier examines the usefulness of classical mythology as a means of structuring contemporary experience. Adams’ polarizing symbols were the cross and the dynamo, Govier’s are the broken statuary of ancient Greece and the pierced body parts of the modern teenager.

Two cultures collide in The Manor School of Classical Studies, in Wychwood Park, Toronto. Here students ejected from such places as Upper Canada College and Branksome Hall are sent to be civilized by exposure to great works of art and literature. However, at the end of each school day a group of female students exchanges school uniforms for the costumes of “trailer trash,” and becomes transformed into a band of latter-day Amazons. Members of the gang call themselves the Dead Ladies, after a Villon ballad. One of their number is Cassie, the truth teller of the novel’s title, who suffers from a kind of Tourette’s syndrome and makes strange uninhibited noises. Like her Trojan namesake, Cassandra, she has the ability to predict the future.

The cultures collide again when the backdrop changes to Greece, where the school takes 10 students, including the Dead Ladies, on an annual field trip. Here the myths and rituals no longer restrain the forces of sexuality and aggression. Chaos erupts during a visit to the shrine of the oracle of Delphi.

The mapping of mythological patterns onto contemporary narratives can be a hackneyed and dangerously contrived literary device. And there are places where the superstructure threatens to overwhelm the characters of this novel, and reduce the impact of climactic events. For the most part, however, the specificity of the settings, and the lively idiom – especially in the depiction of the girl gang – manage to avert the danger.