Reviewed by Hannah French
The True begins as author Sarah Kornfeld’s tale of her grief over a recently-passed lover and the search for what he meant to her and the people around him, but it quickly becomes the tale of her desperation as a writer to share her truth—or her “True”—to the world, and her horrible experiences of being scammed for two years and the ways in which the anonymity and unreliability of today’s internet contributed to the con. With Trump’s divided America as well as the coronavirus pandemic looming above the nonfiction narrative the entire time, Kornfeld takes readers on a two-year journey as she navigates a terrifying world of theatrical intrigue and elaborate scams, all the while grappling with her own identity as a writer trying to make sense of the planet in the wake of her lover’s death.
Kornfeld’s writing feels beautifully theatrical as she bends genres and traditional conventions to liken the narrative to the world of a play. At times, pages are filled by exchanges of dialogue between Kornfeld and other people with little description. As in a play, the interactions between these figures reveal so much about everyone involved. Still, as readers, we only really get to see a handful of characters—Kornfeld and Anya are the ones we hear the most of throughout the course of the work. Other communication occurs over email or text, causing difficulties only present in an increasingly digitizing world. Fake identities and elaborate schemes to which Kornfeld falls victim are made possible through a complex web of online accounts and other virtual tactics.
An additional challenge that Kornfeld faces is the struggle between following her instincts and intuitive clues versus trying to keep an open mind when encountering a new culture. As a guest in Bucharest, Kornfeld finds herself disenchanted by some of her hosts, but she has to remind herself to listen and remain tolerant, even aggressively scolding herself at times. This once again speaks of the struggles of living in a world interconnected by technology—Kornfeld reminds herself to reevaluate her biases and that not everyone will fit the conceptions of “European” that she has created based on not only her previous experiences but also by interactions online.
An exploration of theater in Romania adds a new dimension to The True that provides a haunting yet intricate exploration of what it means to be an artist in any form. Darie, her late lover and a popular stage director, used art as a form of defiance—defiance against the status quo, against societal judgment, against close-mindedness. Kornfeld describes his fashion style and directing style to emphasize the importance of art when it comes to one’s self-expression. Theatre gave Darie a voice of his own in a time when he was suffocating under the weight of not only his father’s influence but also the influence of social and historical changes. Kornfeld describes the beauty of Romanian theatre and its traditions, revealing an entirely new and hidden world that was used as an active form of resistance against the powers of the time.
Kornfeld’s depiction of her depressive spiral is so intimate yet relatable; written so personally, I felt that I was experiencing every moment along with her, from the instant of her realization to the conclusion of that act. Utilizing the January 6 insurrection in the Capitol as a contextualizing event serves as a reminder of the uncertainty faced at that time, only heightening the emotional stress already described in Kornfeld’s life. By interweaving history with her own experiences, Kornfeld crafts a fulfilling narrative that feels so tangible in our own lives.
Kornfeld also makes use of historical events to remind us that a greater historical backdrop always plays a part in our lives. Just as Darie’s life and upbringing had been greatly influenced by the revolution and turmoil brought about by ideological shifts in Romania in the mid-to-late twentieth century, Kornfeld’s experiences in the narrative are framed by the coronavirus pandemic and the challenges in travel and communication it posed as it slowly spread to different corners of the world. Set amid the beginnings of the COVID-19 pandemic in an America equally plagued by political division and corruption, the chaos of The True reminds us that there is always a sweeping backdrop to our lives, a setting to the great plays in which we all take part.
After I finished The True, I was left with questions about my own legacy and identity. Will I be remembered as one of the greats in my field? Will my name be mentioned long after I’m gone? I’ll never know, especially not in the deceptive and confusing world around us that Kornfeld illustrates through her brilliant contextualization of political and cultural events and movements in America. Compelling, passionate, and shocking, The True will remind readers that there is always a part to play in their own lives as well as the lives of others, and the characters and settings of our lives have more influence on us than we might have ever imagined.