‘That’s music to my ears!’ says Ceridwen Dovey, when I tell her that I think her new novel is like a love-child between Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty and The Secret History by Donna Tartt. Life After Truth is set over three intense days as the class of ‘03 meet for a reunion weekend on the Harvard campus. It’s a wonderful, compulsively readable novel following five friends—Jules, Mariam, Rowan, Eloise and Jomo—on the cusp of middle-age. During their weekend of soul-searching and reminiscing, the most infamous member of their class, Frederick Reese [senior advisor and son of the recently elected and loathed US president—sound familiar?], turns up dead. ‘I found it a really fun book to write,’ Dovey says. ‘It’s probably the most fun I’ve had writing ever.’
Life After Truth is inspired by Dovey’s own fifteen-year reunion at Harvard; she attended the prestigious Ivy League university on a full scholarship when she was eighteen. Her route there was an unorthodox one. Her older sister had an American friend applying to American universities (neither Dovey or her sister had ever been to the US) and she took it upon herself to apply to Harvard. ‘My sister just figured out the application process and got into Harvard’, Dovey explains. ‘I think she only applied there! She got in, came home one day and told my parents who were like, “yeah, that’s not going to be possible”. And she said, “well, actually, they’ve given me full financial aid”. So off she went with her suitcase and figured things out. And I was very lucky in that two years later, when I applied, she could help me figure out how the application worked, and by then we knew that because the university has such a big endowment that they basically give you as much funding as you need in order to go, which is pretty remarkable.
‘You go back to campus and sleep in the same dormitories where you spent your youth…It’s visceral, like you’re plugging back into this sensory palace of memory.’
‘It was kind of a weird experience when I arrived—I hadn’t been to America then either—but having my sister there on campus was a much softer landing. I just loved living in the dormitories. I loved how you hung out with people all the time, and ate all your meals together, and saw them at their best and their worst. Once you’ve seen someone in their pyjamas there’s a sort of intimacy there for the rest of your lives.
‘I think a lot of people have a very skewed idea of what the Harvard campus is like, they assume it to be an elitist place of high privilege. And I probably assumed that, too, before I turned up there. But because of all the financial aid available it’s got this very diverse student body and a huge international student community so you could really just curate your own experience as a student. I also happened to discover anthropology when I first arrived. Becoming an anthropologist is basically becoming a professional lurker. You’re just hanging around on the fringes of things, observing. I felt like I did four years of my first field work at college. And that feeling has never really gone away.
‘Since I graduated I’ve only been back for my fifth and fifteenth reunions, and it was the fifteenth reunion that inspired this novel. It was the most emotionally rich and overwhelming experience. You go back to campus and you can choose to sleep in the same dormitories where you spent your youth. It’s a very weird experience. It’s visceral, like you’re plugging back into this sensory palace of memory. You’re sleeping in the same little narrow bed, in the same dormitory room, the furniture smells the same…everything. As a writer my senses were just on fire. I barely slept the four days I was there. It was all these thoughts of: ‘Who am I? Last time I was under this roof I was 18. What have I done with my life?’ It wasn’t all good! There was a lot of soul-searching.’
Life After Truth opens with the various characters’ entries in ‘The Red Book’, a kind of alumni yearbook in which graduates write first-person essays about their lives that is produced by Harvard for each school reunion. ‘Focusing on the things you do want to share and getting to the heart of the “I” is always the goal’ says Harvard’s own Red Book Essay advice page. ‘It’s incredibly addictive, compulsive reading,’ says Dovey, ‘I mean I read it cover-to-cover and it’s a big thick book’. Dovey herself worked in the Red Book office for the Harvard Business College while she was an undergraduate, and explains: ‘You would see the tone of the entries and how they changed over time, when the graduates came back for their five-year, then ten-year, then fifteen-year reunions…as time went on you just saw people get more and more honest and much nicer, actually. None of the performative achievement of the early years. I knew to anticipate that for my own class, but I was quite taken back at the fifteen-year reunion at this radical honesty in the air. People who I barely knew or barely remembered would share extraordinary, intimate stuff about what they were going through. I just found myself kind of walking around feeling this huge empathy with humans. I was in awe of how honest and open people were prepared to be.’
‘I was quite taken back at the fifteen-year reunion at this radical honesty in the air. People I barely remembered would share extraordinary, intimate stuff.’
Also included in the fifteen-year-reunion edition of Dovey’s Red Book were the words Shame on you, Jared Kushner. Kushner was a graduate in the same year but was not at the reunion himself. ‘Some of my classmates were trying to hold this man, who is now right at the apex of power and doing these incredibly wrong things, to account,’ says Dovey. ‘There are two characters in the book, Jules [a famous actress] and Frederick Reese [son and advisor of the president] who I think of as the two poles of dark and light in fame. The characters aren’t inspired by Natalie Portman and Jared Kushner, though they were both classmates of mine. I suppose I took the idea of two people in a class who are famous, one for positive reasons and one who’s more infamous than anything else, and using them as lightning rods for the characters to measure themselves against.’
There’s plenty of measuring and soul-searching going on for all the characters we follow in the novel. School reunions seem perfectly designed to encourage participants to stand outside their own lives and look at them as an observer. This can, of course, painfully highlight the gap between expectations and reality. About this experience in the Harvard context, Dovey says: ‘I think there’s something particularly sad but also poignant at looking at these people who were told they were special at a young age, who are then realising over time that to be special does not mean to be happy. It can mean the polar opposite of that. How do you embrace that knowledge and embrace failure and embrace the gap between who you were told you should be and then who you are? I think every human on earth has to answer those questions for themselves, but there’s something particularly interesting about seeing these Harvard graduates have to do it, because I guess they have a lot further to fall in terms of coming to terms with the inevitability of failure and unhappiness in life.’
I ask Dovey about writing from all these different perspectives, and playing with the dynamic of characters misreading one another’s feelings or intentions. ‘It’s the first time I’ve written with an alternating third-person narration, and I love the form,’ she says, ‘because it lets you play with that gap between what people think and say and what they actually do. We’re all human, right? We are only ever showing the world a tiny bit of the fullness of who we are. That’s what I love about the novel form as well…it’s the best artform for getting at the gap between what’s inside people’s minds and then what they externally do in the world.’
‘We are only ever showing the world a tiny bit of the fullness of who we are.’
‘I liked how the framing of the reunion weekend let me build up these mini-crescendos at various events. But in between, because you’re in the character’s head and because it’s a reunion, they’re thinking about the past, reminiscing, looking back, processing…I could bring in a lot of the backstory. I’m really interested in mid-life now that I turn 40 next month. I genuinely was trying to figure some things out for myself in creating some of these characters. You know, ‘what does one do differently once you’ve passed that mid-way mark? What does it mean to be in mid-life?’
‘Someone asked the other day, “what would you want your readers to come away with?” and I thought, I actually would just like them to just have a few more ideas or solutions for their own lives. I think of fiction as a rehearsal for real life. You get to rehearse dilemmas and emotions and responses, but in a very safe space where there are no consequences for that rehearsal. If I can help people rehearse for mid-life in an enjoyable way, that would be my end goal.’
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. Life After Truth is released on 3 November and is available to pre-order at your local independent bookstore.