Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: Secrets, Lies and the Nature of Truth

Kerry Mallan. Secrets, Lies and Children's Fiction. Houndmills, UK: Palgrave Macmillan. 2013. Print.

Reviewer: David Beagley

" ... to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith." - Samuel Taylor Coleridge

What is the antonym of Truth? Is it Lies? Fiction? Imagination or Dreams? Veiled or Hidden knowledge? Can Truth be secret? Is Faith an acceptance of Truth or the lack of its certainty? Is Truth necessarily a positive and, thus, its opposite a negatve? Kerry Mallan, in this fascinating addition to Palgrave Macmillan's Critical approaches to children's literature series, explores not only the paradox of our searching for truth in fictional stories, but also the very moral conundrum of the essence and social necessity of Truth.

Coleridge coined the term "suspension of disbelief" to explain his writing approach for fantastic and supernatural themes, and to suggest how a rational, adult audience could accept such emotional and imaginary elements - their "poetic faith". It has gained much broader modern traction in theatrical and movie studies around the role and responsibility of the audience in creating meaning from the observed performance of an actor - accepting that David Tennant talking to a skull is Hamlet, not Doctor Who, or even David Tennant! The creation of a story, whether for adults or children, requires the construction of something that is not real, that does not actually exist, something that we therefore must define as untrue. This paradox is not just structural and literary but moral and social for, as Mallan emphasises right from the start, we insist that children see the Truth as a social foundation and inherently desirable, yet everyday we demonstrate the need to manipulate or ignore it.

"Children are taught to tell the truth but they learn from adults how to lie. There are many reasons why we all lie - fear, embarrassment, playfulness, competitiveness, to save face or to do harm. We also lie to protect the feelings of others: this is a lesson that children learn from life about the etiquette of lying, or the necessity of lying." (Introduction: the burden of Truth, p. 3)

Mallan structures her study in three parts. The first, "Truth, Lies and Survival" uses the image and concept of the veil to consider how secrets, deceptions and outright lies may actually be necessary for survival. By considering several political narratives, including Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis graphic novels, Randa Abdel-Fattah's Does my head look big in this? and Jeanette Winter's Nasreen's secret school, she explores the concept of Islamic veiling of women as both an imposition and a protection for those characters in their narratives. The physicality of the veil not only hides the physical girl from the external world, but enables her to conceal her individuality and rebellion against the 'wrongness' of that immediate world. Mallan extends this idea of the safety of veiled truth into other political stories such as Lowry's Number the stars, Naidoo's The other side of truth and Jacqueline Wilson's Secrets.

The second section, "Secrets and Secrecy", expands this idea of keeping truths hidden as it considers control and power in groups through disinformation and withholding of knowledge. It follows this process via an intriguing range of texts, from state secrets (Collin's The Hunger Games, Doctorow's Little Brother), through secret groups and societies (the religious cult in Hrdlitschka's Sister Wife, the crime family of Gavin's The Robber Baron's Daughter), to secrets within ourselves (Larabaleister's trauma novel Liar, Blabey's picture book Sunday Chutney). The keeping and the discovering of secrets may be dangerous and certainly will have consequences. Conversely, the telling of truths might be more destructive. The paradox again!

The final section, "Tangled Webs", take these questions of truth into the nature of the storytelling. Three anthropomorphic stories, Pascoe's Fog a dox, Wild's Fox, and Vaughn's Wombat Stew, explore the capacity for deceit and miscommunication against a canvas of human social constructs of friendship and family, before the posturing and self-deception of metafiction is tackled through Bosch's The name of this book is secret, McCaughrean's A pack of lies and Gleeson's delightful Uncle David. Metafiction's deliberate creation of something 'not-true' brings together many of Mallan's considerations of Truth in its demanding of "Who is responsible for Truth in a story - the author or the reader? Is it something socially inherent or is a passing perception that depends on the situation?"

Secrets, Lies and Children's Fiction offers a clear and insightful argument about the nature of Truth in literary, social and moral terms. It recognizes that these three frames of reference may not always agree, and may even often directly contradict, but it does not prescribe one over another. Kerry Mallan presents the paradoxes that come from single, inflexible definitions and she demonstrates these with well-chosen and valid text examples. Through these she credits their audiences with the capacity to ponder and answer their questions of Truth - are the secrets and lies necessity or deception, selfish or altruistic?

This is a most thought-provoking study which emphasises that children's and young adult literature is much more than just a created educational or entertainment artefact, but holds a mirror to the worlds of those young readers and the adults around them.


David Beagley

Volume 17, Issue 3, The Looking Glass, November, 2014

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