In a horror film, the final girl is a problematic trope. She escapes alive as a reward for being “good”—less sexy or promiscuous than her counterparts, faster (if not smarter) than her assailant. But she rarely gets to tell her own story, which, if we’re ready to feel extra creeped out, is pitched to the viewers as a true one.
This concept is turned on its head in True Story, the electrifying debut novel by Kate Reed Petty, which melds genres, narrators and narrative style with such ease and confidence, you’d swear she’d been at it for years.
The girl in question is Alice Lovett, who, after blacking out a party in the late ‘90s, endures a sexual assault that goes on to haunt her for the next 15 years. Also at the party is Nick Brothers, a star lacrosse player and would-be pal of the boys who may or may not (it depends who you ask) have raped Alice. Nick feels weird when his friends brag to him about their conquest, but it also doesn’t concern him; he’s too busy learning the push and pull of functional alcoholism and trying to impress Haley Moreland, Alice’s former best friend and a “good” girl who is definitely going places.
This initial set-piece is gripping and achingly real to anyone who attended a suburban high school party at the start of the millennium. But it’s also only a precursor to all the clever weirdness that is to come, as the story skips back in time to Alice and Haley’s middle school horror movie scripts, forward in time to 30-something Nick’s binge-drinking-weekend-turned-cabin-in-the-woods nightmare, then back again to Alice’s (maybe) true epistolary tale of psychological imprisonment.
Each section is a vignette on its own right—but together they form a sly commentary on the nature of trauma and the question of agency when telling a story. Like any good horror romp, this one has a delicious twist (and even a terrifying bout with a chainsaw). Ultimately, however, the true terrors come from within—our own demons, our own memories, our own dissonance between fiction and reality.