Fiction – hardcover; Little, Brown; 320 pages; 2008. Review copy courtesy of the publisher.
Reading a new Anita Shreve novel is always a delicious experience, not least because she’s an author with an uncanny ability to spin an entertaining story out of an often simple premise. But what I like most about this prolific American author is her refusal to stick to a formula. While her novels may share similar themes — usually love, loss and family relationships in a New England setting — she plays around with narrative structure so no two books are alike.
In her latest, Testimony, she tells the story of a sex scandal at a private school in Vermont from the viewpoint of some 24 different characters. It sounds crazy to have so many voices in the mix, but somehow, in Shreve’s capable hands, the structure works without losing any narrative drive. But given the story is such a cracking one it would be almost impossible not to convey a sense of urgency and excitement in the telling of it.
The book opens with Mike Bordwin, the headmaster of Avery Academy, watching a video given to him by one of his administrative staff. The footage shows three male students from the school’s basketball team having drunken sex with a much younger pupil. While Mike is shocked and repulsed, he is also desperate to contain the outfall so that it does not tarnish the school’s sterling reputation. But we, the readers, are told at the outset that the explicit video produces …
… something very like radiation sickness throughout the school, reducing the value of an Avery education, destroying at least two marriages […], ruining the futures of three students, and, most horrifying of all, resulting in a death.
As Mike launches an in-house investigation and gets at least two of the culprits — the upstanding Rob Leicht and the less likable “ringleader” James Robles — to sign written confessions, the girl’s outraged parents call the police. Meanwhile the third culprit, Silas Quinney, a promising scholarship student with a talent for basketball, goes missing.
When a local newspaper reporter gets wind of the unfortunate events, Avery Academy suddenly attracts the kinds of unsavoury headlines that destroy reputations and ruin lives.
But, as ever with a Shreve novel, everything is not quite what it might seem. A steady drip, drip of information, delivered by different characters — including some of the parents, other teachers, the students involved and police — allows the reader to build up a picture of what really happened that fateful night. There are certain revelations which occur late in the book that gave this reviewer at least pause for thought. (As an aside, I’d caution you against reading the product description on Amazon.co.uk because it gives away some of these crucial plot spoilers — thankfully I read it after I’d finished the book.)
While Testimony doesn’t attempt to draw any moral conclusion about the scandal, nor does it attribute blame to any one party, it does throw up some interesting questions about the sexual conduct of teenagers (or, as one character puts it, “I thought it odd that no one at school thought to mention to any student that it was actually illegal in the state of Vermont for a senior boy to have intercourse with a freshman girl”) and underage drinking. But it does show very clearly how “a single action can cause a life to veer off in a direction it was never meant to go” .
The social issues here, while important, aren’t examined in any great detail, because the author is more interested in analysing how ordinary people react when thrust into extraordinary situations. For that reason alone, Anita Shreve fans will find much to like in this book and, if you’re anything like me, you’ll race through it in a day or two, desperate to find out what happens in the end.