Book Review: I Know This Much Is True
Posted March 1, 2011on:
I Know This Much Is True, by Wally Lamb, HarperCollins, 1998, 901 pp.
This novel held me captive in its spell. Although I started it last week, for the last two days I have spent hours and hours just trying to complete it. It had such a firm grip on my mind that I could not think of anything else, and such a grip on my emotions that it set me in a melancholy mood. If, like me, you can easily be sucked in to an empathetic emotional state by a good novel, I will warn you ahead of time about this one. Because of its length and the rawness of the emotional story it tells, I Know This Much Is True can hold sway over you in a deeper and more prolonged way than most novels that explore human feelings and relationships.
I Know This Much Is True is both epic and intimate. Dominick Birdsey, the first-person narrator, journeys through his family’s multi-generational history of secrets, violence and madness in an attempt to save the life of his twin Thomas, who is a paranoid schizophrenic. Instead, he ends up unpacking his own anger, arrogance, defensiveness, loneliness, rejection and brokenness. He cannot heal his brother, but he can find healing for himself.
Dominick’s deep anger and despair made this a difficult novel to read. We read in Dominick’s voice, which means the reader is subjected to all of Dominick’s diatribes, self-loathing and futile frustration. This book is a study in anger, especially male anger—which is sanctioned and supported as a protective strategy for boys and men to make their way in the world. It details the ways that righteous anger protects Dominick, but also the way it holds him hostage and the way it damages him. He is justifiably angry about his abusive stepfather, his weak mother, his sick brother, his wife who left him, the death of his daughter and more. His anger is destroying him, even as it seems like the only thing that is keeping him together.
Lamb’s novel combs through the depths of a true, messy, imperfect, never-finished journey of emotional healing for Dominick. As a reader, I traveled to those ugly depths with him, which tapped into my own places of pain and anger. Lamb does not provide quick or easy moments of insight. Every ounce of healing Dominick finds is hard-earned and slow. (There’s a reason it takes 900 pages to tell this story.) In imitation of life, real healing is not easy.
Be prepared for that long and painful journey if you read this story. But also know that it’s worth it. This is no shallow happy ending. It is a true-to-life portrait of grace, redemption, forgiveness and healing—that which is broken slowly becoming whole. I was captive to the journey, but the novel’s end left me a sense of peace and hope.