Truth be Told is the second novel by Kia Abdullah to feature Zara Kaleel, the lawyer cum trauma counsellor from her first novel, the ground-breaking ‘Take It Back’ (reviewed by yours truly, here) which burst onto the literary scene in 2019 closely followed by a well-deserved flurry of publicity due to, amongst other things, the author’s ability to make you question viewpoints you thought you had already set in stone.
Any author will tell you that the follow up to a fantastic debut novel is always a tough gig – like the ‘difficult’ second album for musicians, but Kia needn’t worry – with Truth be Told she has kept the bar raised extremely high and has asked more searching questions of both her characters and of us, the readers – leading you to wonder who’s side, if any, are you on?
Kamran and his younger brother Adam are from a well to-do Muslim family, living in London but boarding during schooltime at a prestigious private school (that seems to be loosely based on Harrow). Their family cares a lot about appearances, and not that much about emotions and feelings – yet they seem happy enough. You get the feeling that if you were to scratch the surface there are probably a lot of unaddressed issues just waiting to tumble out.
At school Kamran is well liked, intelligent and seemingly has his whole future mapped out ahead of him when an after-dark incident with his popular, athletic housemaster Finn, who is a year younger than Kamran but his physical equal, throws everything off course for both of them. Kamran goes home early from a drunken student party, and wakes up early in the morning to find Finn naked in bed with him. He has vague recollections of something happening in the night but not enough to really remember what happened, and how he protested, if at all. Kamran is embarrassed and horrified at the thought of having sex with Finn and knows he would not have consented to it – but why would Finn, his friend, do this to him – and why would he be acting as if everything is ok? Was it his fault? What did he do to encourage such a thing to happen? He seeks out the advice of Zara Kaleel, an abuse counsellor and despite her misgivings about the ramifications of Kamran ‘going public’ with his complaint, she pledges to support him along the path of whichever choice he decides to make.
Handsome and popular, Finn is horrified when he finds out how Kamran feels – he believed he had consent, and when Kamran refuses the school’s offer of mediation (essentially keeping things quiet and avoiding embarrassment for them) and decides to go to the police and onto court – both his and Finn’s life descend into chaos. Finn’s family are nowhere to be seen, more appearance management goes on, and you start to see the similarities between these two boys lurking under the surface. The creeping realisation for Finn of what he is being accused of; and indeed may have done – is extremely uncomfortable to read, as is Kamran’s mental gymnastics over what he needs to do to make peace with this situation. Zara reiterates that she will see this through with Kamran, but it is going to be very tough on both of them and it soon becomes clear that the defence are likely to intimate that Kamran was happy to give consent then regretted it afterwards when he considered the ramifications of him coming out as gay within his family and faith, so instead ‘cried rape’. It’s also almost. Inevitable that the media will run with this angle and throw their support behind the blonde, blue-eyed athletic poster boy, rather than the ‘secretly gay but ashamed about it’ Muslim boy.
Kamran’s father is horrified and embarrassed and clearly thinks his son should have just ignored the whole situation and carried on, not risking his reputation or future prospects. His mother is ineffective and though she knows how to look like the perfect mother, she doesn’t have a clue how to reach out to her son. Kamran feels completely alone and knows that by going down the formal route, his life, so perfectly mapped out – just like Finn’s – will change forever. Whatever happens, one of them will be seen as a rapist and the other, a victim, and potentially a liar. The ramifications are huge for both of them and it’s easy to see why – is he the boy that was raped or the boy who cried rape – and why are they both seen as being as bad as each other?
On a positive note, It’s great to see Zara Kaleel back. A hero for our times, product of a traditional Muslim upbringing with strong family dynamics and fractured relationships she has become a lawyer, and supporter of those who need a strong, positive force in their lives. She’s a great character – fierce in her determination to fight for what’s right – regardless of whether or not that makes her a target for those less pleased about her bringing those issues to light. Having already been attacked for her involvement in her previous case, she knows she will be thrown back in the spotlight if she takes this case on and that makes her think long and hard about whether she feels she can do it all again – but ultimately her conscience wins out.
It’s a tough read. Kia’s writing is so, so clever. One minute you’re rooting for Kamran and furious with Finn – then we switch to Finn’s perspective and it’s heart-breaking. A mistake, if it was a mistake, and a life ruined, over before it’s begun. Consent is a strong theme running through both of Kia’s books and what she demonstrates very clearly is that the line is not always as black and white as you may think – there are shades of grey and different interpretations that can, if not addressed, end in disaster. Victim blaming and media bias, specifically around race is another theme that Kia deals with and represents brilliantly.
A word of warning to finish – if you haven’t read The Whole Truth, there are some pretty big spoilers in Truth be Told so you may want to get hold of that one first!