ONE TO WATCH OUT FOR: REAL READERS on The Truth About Julia by Anna Schaffner

Review published on April 29, 2016.

REAL READERS is a nudge/nb initiative whereby a group of selected reviewers tackle a new title in order to create word of mouth. This is the first summary of their reviews – good and bad! – to be posted.

I was sent this novel by Real Readers to review. The publicity blurb compares it to Appletree Yard by Louise Doughty. As a fan of Appletree Yard, I was sceptical about this claim but I have to admit, it more than lived up to the hype. The story is written in the form of a long confessional letter from journalist, Clare Hardenberg, to her editor who also happens to be her ex-lover. Clare is writing the letter from prison, awaiting trial for a crime – the details of which are not revealed until the end of the novel. Her account reveals how her journalistic investigation into the life of a convicted murderer led her to commit a crime of her own. One of the things that makes this novel so compelling is the mystery surrounding the subject of Clare’s investigation, Julia White: a beautiful, privileged young woman who sets off a bomb in a London coffee shop with devastating consequences. Julia is an intriguing figure and we share Clare’s confusion as she struggles to make sense of the wildly differing narratives she hears from Julia’s friends and family. As the story progresses, a number of interesting parallels between Julia and Clare emerge and it becomes clear that Clare’s own preoccupations and experiences make her a less than objective judge of character. What I liked most about this novel was its intelligence and originality. While it was a proper page-turner (I genuinely couldn’t put it down), it raised some very thought-provoking questions, making it a more satisfying read than the average thriller. The author uses Julia’s apparently inexplicable act of terrorism to explore our desire to understand the psychology behind those who commit such acts of atrocity. At the same time, the novel raises some uncomfortable truths about the way we live in the west: particularly our lack of political engagement and rampant consumerism. Highly recommended – especially for book groups as there are so many interesting issues to debate here!

Kathryn Cope *****

Clare Hardenberg, an investigative journalist, is tasked to write a book about convicted mass murderer, Julia White, who planted a bomb in a chain coffee shop in busy central London causing the death of twenty-four people. However, Clare herself is on remand and facing prison for many years as she writes to her editor and friend, George, chronicling her interviews with Julia’s family, friends and a brief chilling interview with Julia herself. Told totally from Clare’s perspective, this book poses the mysteries, why did Julia White do what she did and what did Clare Hardenberg do to end up in prison? Are the two incidents related? In a true psychological thriller sense it’s what isn’t spelled out by the narrative that adds to the chill factor in this novel. Clare’s investigation into Julia doesn’t paint a stark clear cut picture and challenges our perceptions of Julia and whether she is inherently evil or a sociopath. Clare herself has had a tumultuous time in her career prior to the point she takes on the assignment to write about Julia and although she is our narrator, it’s obvious that Clare is reeling from traumatic events in her own life that colour her opinions. This isn’t the type of psychological thriller that overlaps crime thrillers to keep you entertained, it’s the sort of literary fiction that comments on society and culture challenging your understanding of the world and the way it works. I found this book incredibly difficult to put down even though more questions arose as we found out more about Julia and Clare, leaving me chilled to the bone of my impressions of both women at the end of this thought-provoking read.

Babus Ahmed *****

This is an accomplished novel from first time author Anna Schaffner. Easy to read but gripping I found it very enjoyable. 24 year old Julia, highly intelligent and beautiful, plants a bomb in a coffee shop in central London killing many people. No-one can understand why she did this and part of the story is the well trodden theme of what makes someone evil. Was Julia a psychopath or did some event drive her to do this and if so what? What makes this book clever is that the quest to discover this is taken up by an investigative journalist Clare who decides to write Julia’s biography and gets an agreement to publish ( her publisher being someone with whom she has previously been romantically entangled ). Clare is in a difficult place in her life, she is probably late 40s although we are never told and life has not turned out that well. She lives alone with her cat and, professionally, her career has been destroyed by some ill judged comments made by her about one of her biography subjects, an odious – and rather too cartoon evil I felt – banker who sued and left her penniless. The novel starts with Clare in a mental hospital clearly having committed a serious crime but we are not told why. It is clear however that Clare in her vulnerable state has become obsessed with Julia’s story and having met Julia has been driven to commit a terrible crime herself. The character of Clare is very well drawn (and reminded me somewhat of characters in both Clare Messud’s brilliant The Woman Upstairs and Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal as in slightly bitter older woman becomes obsessed with younger beautiful woman’s life ) and Julia, too, is brilliant. What I found less convincing are the portraits of family and friends of Julia, each of whom give their own account of her. Some of these I found again to be rather trite (brother worshipping his Dad for example, Mother, a drunk). There are some interesting parallels between Julie and her relationship with her sister and Clare’s feelings about her own sister. All of this is put together in such a clever way to make the whole story brilliantly unputdownable. I look forward to Anna Shaffner’s next novel!

Jill Palmer *****

I approached this book with trepidation as it did not appear to be my cup of tea at first glance. It is about a young woman called Julia who plants a bomb in a cafe in London, killing 24 people, and an investigative journalist called Clare Hardenberg who is writing Julia’s biography whilst awaiting trial in prison. I need not have worried as it soon became something of a page turner for me! I was intrigued to find out why Julia had carried out such an atrocity and also why Clare had ended up behind bars. I thought the story was told in an interesting way and enjoyed how the background of each character was related. It did, however, become a little too political at times and I had the feeling the author was trying to get some sort of point across. It’s definitely a thought provoking tale. I found The Truth About Julia a fast paced, absorbing and well written novel. It kept me wanting to know more and there is also a slight twist at the end. A compelling and somewhat disturbing debut which should give reading groups plenty to talk about!

Vanessa Wild ****

Oh my! I read this in less than two days, as I found it difficult to put down. Firstly, debut author Anna Schaffner, has a very engaging style of writing and although the subject matter is tricky, it’s never over complicated. Secondly, the characters of Claire, Julia etc are beautifully drawn. You get a feeling of them as real people, with real foibles, strengths and desires. At the start of the book Julia is in jail following a bomb attack in a coffee shop in London. 24 innocent people have been killed. Claire, an investigative journalist, has 14 weeks to discover more about Julia and her motivations and publish a book on the subject. We follow the investigation through Claire’s interviews with Julia’s friends, family and victims and her letters to her publisher and ex-lover George. As Julia’s story unfolds, the reader, discovers more about Claire’s own life, its parallels with Julia and how she has been affected by what she finds. Initially I found the ending quite abrupt and a little disappointing but on reflection, I came to terms with this and felt it added to the whole. (No more for risk of spoilers!) This book is such a page turner. I can’t recommend it enough.

Philippa Dickinson *****

After reading the synopsis this book did not sound like a kind of book that I would normally read and was a bit apprehensive about delving into it. In 2014 Julia white – a beautiful and intelligent young lady blows up a coffee shop in central London. Claire Hardenberg an investigative journalist has been commissioned to write a biography of Julia.

At the beginning of the book Claire is in prison herself and the book is told looking back into her investigation into the bombing for the autobiography and explaining what is happening to herself. It was not made clear as to why Claire was in prison until the end of the book. I did not really enjoy Claire’s story and why she was in prison although the story of Julia was interesting. This book took me a long time to read (I can normally finish a book in a day), it was not a page turner and I found myself not really caring what happened to the characters. This was the authors’ first novel but I will not be seeking out any other books she may write.

Maxine Weatherall **

After Julia White, a beautiful, intelligent young woman, blows up a coffee shop in London, Clare, an investigative journalist is assigned to write a biography about her to expose her motives for this atrocity. At the time of writing her account Clare herself is in prison…but why? As Clare interviews key figures in Julia’s life, we discover the deep impact that Julia has made on each of their lives. We are held in suspense wondering what motivated Julia to carry out that act of terrorism in June 2014 and why Clare, too, is now behind bars. This gripping story held my attention to the end. Schaffner cleverly shows how all the characters use manipulation, whether knowingly or not, to influence the people they love.

Anna Elliott *****

April 2016

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