Sarah Jamila Stevenson – The Truth Against the World

sarahjamilastevenson-thetruthagainsttheworldWhen Olwen Nia Evans learns that her family is moving from San Francisco to Wales to fulfil her great-grandmother’s dying wish, she starts having strange and vivid dreams about her family’s past. But nothing she sees in her dreams of the old country–the people, the places–makes any sense. Could it all be the result of an overactive imagination . . . or could everything she’s been told about her ancestors be a lie?

Once in Wales, she meets Gareth Lewis, a boy plagued by dreams of his own–visions he can’t shake after meeting a ghost among the misty cairns along the Welsh seaside.

A ghost named Olwen Nia Evans.

Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s The Truth Against the World is a modern-day Welsh ghost story that proves that ghosts can be from any era and bound to earth for any reason. It’s about the secrets people keep and how a coincidental discovery of a tombstone out at a deserted ruin at the seaside can unravel those secrets decades on. While the story Wyn and Gareth discover is tragic, their story itself is lovely and astonishingly free of insta-love and relationship drama. Instead the focus is squarely on Olwen and helping her find peace. 

Wyn and Gareth were interesting characters. While I connected more strongly to Wyn, I really liked Gareth and his gentle ways. Wyn is a regular girl, neither popular nor ostracised at school, though with her best friend busy with the student council her life there has become somewhat lonely. Add to that the fact that her grandmother Gee Gee has to move in with her family due to terminal ill health and things are getting increasingly hard and she’s becoming more isolated. Gareth, on the other hand, only starts feeling isolated once he encounters little Olwen in a cromlech and she starts haunting him, appearing on his phone in pictures, calling him and changing his ring tone to an old Welsh tune. When Gareth finds Wyn while searching for information on Olwen, they immediately feel a connection, but it isn’t a romantic one. Instead it is kinship and their mutual link to Olwen that draws them together and even if there is a growing attraction and the possibility of more, that is all in the future and not really relevant to this story.

I loved Wyn’s bookishness and her strong desire to learn more about her Welsh heritage and learning the language. Her bond with Gee Gee was lovely and I completely understood her need to know more about her great-grandmother’s youth in Wales. This book made me wish I’d asked my grandparents more about their youth and their experiences during the war. Gareth made me laugh, especially his bickering with his little brother, which was very recognisable having two of those myself. The only characters beyond Wyn and Gareth that I really felt were fully fleshed-out were Gee Gee and Wyn’s parents. The other characters felt somewhat distant, except Hugh and Annie, but even they are only known as the cabbie and his wife, who help Wyn practice her Welsh. I guess this emphasises how isolated Wyn and Gareth feel. This isolation is echoed in Gee Gee’s story and in the atmosphere of this small Welsh town, where nothing happens and time has seemingly stood still.

The Truth Against the World is a combination of a mystery and a story about dealing with love and loss. Gee Gee’s passing and the months leading up to that are poignant and not just sad, but beautiful too. As for the mystery, the clues and links between them are seeded throughout the book and are there for the finding. A reasonably perceptive reader will be able to piece the clues together on their own before Stevenson reveals the solution. The eventual resolution of the story was clever and I really liked how it was all linked together. All the lead characters in this tale are left with some sort of peace, even if the grief and pain haven’t miraculously disappeared.

Stevenson’s love of Wales, its countryside and vistas, and its language clearly shine through in the narrative. Stevenson also writes their internal dialogue quite well, but there were some elements of the narrative that didn’t work for me as well. For one, the pacing felt somewhat uneven. Sometimes large amounts of time flew by with hardly a mention and then we spent entire chapters on just one event. And the tale felt a bit meandering in places, which made the story feel a bit padded. But my biggest peeve with the book – and one that is wholly personal and probably a librarian quirk – was the fact that Gareth’s computer skills often were demonstrated by his finding things online. This in itself isn’t that bad, but the fact that it’s painted several times as nothing else but plugging a couple of search terms into Google made me grumpy. Yes, the fact that he narrows his search terms cleverly is great, but quite often finding information goes far beyond Google-fu and finding the right search terms. But, again, that might just be my professional prejudice showing.

On the whole, I had a lovely time with The Truth Against the World. Gareth and Wyn are great protagonists and their tale of a ghostly girl looking for peace is haunting and compelling. If you like modern-day ghost stories and one set in a different from usual locale that Sarah Jamila Stevenson’s The Truth Against the World is certainly a book that should fit your tastes. I really enjoyed Stevenson’s writing style and I’d love to read more of her work in the future.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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