This is really the start to the duology of books 5 & 6, which should be read together. I can't imagine being current on this series, and reading book 5 but not being able to move into book 6. Book 5 ostensibly ends, and then upon beginning book 6, we realize that, in fact, the brutal telling hasn't ended at all.
The title of the book is from a snippet of the story told about Emily Carr, a Canadian artist who is best known for her paintings of natives and nature, including totem poles:
“I think it all started with the brutal telling,” said Clara.
“The brutal telling. It’s become quite well known in artistic circles. She was the youngest of five daughters and very close to her father. It was apparently a wonderful relationship. Nothing to suggest it wasn’t simply loving and supportive.”
“Nothing sexual, you mean.”
“No, just a close father-daughter bond. And then in her late teens something happened and she left home. She never spoke to him or saw him again.”
“What happened?” Gamache was slowing the car. Clara noticed this, and watched the clock approaching five to five.
“No one knew. She never told anyone, and her family said nothing. But she went from being a happy, carefree child to an embittered woman. Very solitary, not very likeable apparently. Then, near the end of her life, she wrote to a friend. In the letter she said that her father had said something to her. Something horrible and unforgivable.”
“The brutal telling.”
“That’s how she described it.”
In a cabin in the woods, a story is told. There is a listener, a teller, a young man, a hermit, and the story, a tale from the outside, where a terrible thing has happened. It is a brutal telling. In the cabin is a lifetimes worth of treasures, like the library at Alexandria, or the lost Amber Room of Catherine the Great, which came from no one knows where. And then the hermit turns up dead in a bistro.
This is a complicated book, primarily about greed and deceit, and what happens when a community discovers that one of their own has been lying to them about things that are tremendously important, and those lies unravel. No matter what Ayn Rand and Gordon Gekko say, greed is not a force for good. Secrets are revealed, lines are drawn.
One of the villagers is tried and convicted of murdering the old hermit.