Everyday, in newsrooms across the land, reporters are writing hurried snapshots of history.
Their front page stories become the footnotes of history books.
As I read Rebecca Godfrey’s compulsive, award-winning tale of the night Reena Virk was killed in 1997, I was struck by this truth of journalism.
Resource-stretched newsrooms send reporters to taped-off crime scenes for hours, and to courtrooms packed with crying, overdramatic teenagers, all in an effort to unearth nuggets of truth which eventually comprise 600 words on printed pages that yellow and flake too quickly.
Years later, someone with far more time to research gets a touching, beautiful book out on the shelves.
Perhaps it is with this thought in mind that I couldn’t help but wonder about Godfrey’s Under the Bridge (The True Story of the Murder of Reena Virk).
She opens with the memories of dive unit members who lowered themselves into Victoria’s Gorge, searching for Virk’s 14-year-old body. Or anything.
In amazing detail, the men who dove in the Gorge’s dark waters meticulously explain what they did, what they saw, what they brought to the surface.
“Using a camera floated out to him, Bob Wall photographed the underwear. He then marked the spot with a wooden stick known as a pelican marker. He kicked back to shore and placed the underwear inside a sterile Ziploc bag. Wall flinched slightly as water fell from the bag and as he touched the wet fabric and saw the label, so ordinary and familiar: Fruit of the Loom.” (p.3)
These details are the result of excellent research, interviews that would have required Wall to recount his experience again and again until Godfrey, and the reader, could picture it in her mind.
But then, we have this:
“In the store, Reena waited in the aisle of candy. How much sweetness there was in the world, in this one aisle alone…. Perhaps Syreeta and Marisa were in the store, waiting while their boyfriends bought cigarettes. The cashier would ask for ID, and Marisa would be giggling when Warren strolled out, his baggy pants starting to slip off his hips, the white hems dragging on the concrete. Warren would put his arm around Syreeta, and Dimitri would hold Marisa’s left hand, and they’d head up to the tracks like this, entwined. They would not have noticed Reena, for they did not attend Shoreline with her, and she’d never been to the parties on the beaches or soccer fields….
Nobody noticed the girl wandering in the aisles, staring at her blue nails, afraid to look at the numerals on the red clock, a gift of Du Maurier Cigarette Company….” (p. 62)
I’m sorry, but how could anyone possibly know this?
I understand the nature of creative non-fiction. I know that sometimes, when so many details are nabbed, authors can take a little freedom for themselves in the facts.
And Godfrey successfully evokes the image of a small-town convenience store, and to some degree explains the young victim’s isolation from her community and her peers.
But there are other moments, too; entire chapters dedicated to two Russian sisters who uncovered the murder, but who it seems could not possibly have been interviewed, making all their recorded conversations and actions questionable.
Unless Godfrey did meet with them, but doesn’t clarify this in her story.
I sped through her book because it is just so very good, and what a Vancouver Sun writer who covered most of the Virk trials called the definitive history of the slaying.
But I also sped through in hopes there would be some explanation at the end of the method of her research, of her writing.
An author’s note at the front of the book allows, “material in this book is derived from author interviews and observations, official records, and court proceedings. Certain conversations have been largely re-created based on these sources and some names and details have been changed.”
I know footnotes are not pretty. But how I longed for even just a couple.
*source of picture