This review was first published in Resource Links Magazine, “Canada’s national journal devoted to the review and evaluation of Canadian English and French resources for children and young adults.” It appears in volume 20.3.
Normandy (“Norm”) Page lives in the shadow of her almost-megalomaniac sister, Keira, author of a popular and successful graphic novel series… based on their home life. Norm has never revealed how deeply her sister’s biting commentary—positioned as humour—has hurt her. Her pain remains hidden; she has never dared to probe into the truth of her feelings towards her dysfunctional family, always on edge to ensure that the sensibilities of Keira, artistic prodigy, remain undisturbed.
Enter the Truth Commission, organized by Norm and her two best friends, Neil and Dusk, in an attempt to reveal truths hidden in the lives around them. The dynamic between these three friends is so real; the way they communicate, the way they respond to their world, rings true. Like many teens, their youthful focus on what seems important (for them, the revealing of objective truth) misses a greater fundamental understanding of human nature and society. But that’s okay; they get there in the end. This is essentially what The Truth Commission is about: Norm and her friends growing into a deeper—if painful—understanding of the relationship between objective and functional truth. This understanding has been explored in a multitude of fictional forms (Ibsen’s 1884 Wild Duck springs to mind, as does a particularly poignant set of panels from Berkeley Breathed’s 1980s comic, Bloom County… ). The Truth Commission stays true to the message in these representations: knowing the truth does not always increase human happiness, or as Norm puts it, “The truth … is like an onion. You don’t want to peel that sucker all at once or you might never stop crying” (308).
The Truth Commission is presented as Norm’s Grade 11 “Spring Special Project” at Green Pastures Academy of Art and Applied Design, a fictional fine-art school set in Nanaimo, BC. The school-epistolary narrative structure may seem somewhat derivative, but Susan Juby raises the bar in the subgenre, avoiding the expected clichés and self-indulgent narration. Norm exhibits both the insecurities of a 16-year-old following in the footsteps of an excessively successful older sibling and the sardonic voice of a verbally precocious, intelligent young woman exploring her own artistic and psychological space. Norm’s project is a creative non-fiction writing assignment, suggested by and written for her creative writing teacher, Ms. Fowler, whom she addresses in numerous footnotes. The project-based nature of the novel allows Norm (and Juby) to play with notions of genre, voice, structure, and selection of detail in a way that forces readers to think about the metanarrative: the story is not only about Norm, but about Norm writing her own story and in so doing learning what that story really is.
While at times the footnotes seem a little more like Juby talking to the reader than Norm talking to her teacher, one of the most successfully aspects of The Truth Commission remains Norm’s narrative voice: intelligent, humourous, mildly approval-seeking, self-aware and self-deprecating, both deferential and cheeky. Norm is naïve about her effect on others at the same time as she actively strives to understand the complexities of her own life and the motivations of those around her; this combination of confusion and self-assurance are revealed subtly in the way she tells her story.
Norm learns a number of truths—some good, some bad, some painful. In retrospect, Norm tells her readers, knowing the truth didn’t obviously set her free: “that’s kind of the thing about the truth. It’s never complete and it’s never simple” (309), a lesson Norm learns to both her benefit and detriment.