Review of ‘Testimony’, a novel by Anita Shreve
I am reviewing the paperback version of the novel, published by Abacus, 320 pages, cover price £6.99, ISBN 978-0349119021. Genre:- Modern Fiction.
I purchased my copy from Asda supermarket during their summer sale for £1, it can also be found on Amazon for £3.66 new or used from 0.01p
Testimony is set in January 2006. The location is a small town in Vermont. It is the kind of town where farming dominates the area and everyone knows everyone else.
Mike Bordwin is the headmaster of Avery,an exclusive private boarding and day school school, located in the town. He is proud of his pupils and his school’s reputation for excelling at sport and producing bright young academics.
One fateful day, his world is rocked when a member of staff hands him a video tape, telling him that her really ought to watch the footage.
Mike takes the video home to watch. To his horror, the video is very explicit, it shows a group of his students, three boys and a girl, engaged in a wild sex session. It has obviously been recorded on a hand held camera and he realises that the action is taking place in a dormitory within the school complex.
He recognises the three boys, all older students aged between 17 and 19, but the girl is a ‘freshman’, a new pupil at the school and she is just 14 years old. As Mike watches the steamy footage, it becomes apparent that the girl, far from being an innocent child, is thoroughly enjoying herself and seems to know precisely what she is doing. She smiles for, and acts up to the camera as she performs various sex acts on and with the boys. By the evidence of empty drink cans and bottles strewn around the cavorting pupils, this teenage orgy is alcohol fuelled and Mike’s pupils are definitely worse for drink.
One of the boys involved is Silas Quinney, a day pupil and the son of local people whom Mike is friendly with. The behaviour is very out of character for Silas, who is going steady with a female music student. He is from a very respectable family and is known as a hard-working, sensible lad.
Mike does not want to involve the Police before speaking to the pupils involved, he is aware that any sexual contact with an under aged person is classed as sexual assault in Vermont, and carries a hefty prison sentence. Mike takes the law into his own hands and interviews the students involved himself and forces two of the boys to write and sign confessions. Silas meanwhile, cannot be found.
When the scandal breaks, the girl involved ‘Sienna’, cries rape and her parents naturally take legal action. The girl is known to be promiscuous among her fellow students and seems to swing between weeping and boasting about the events on the movie as the footage spreads, thanks to the internet, where someone has posted the video.
The plot wobbles along drifting from character to character, until the final conclusion.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anita Shreve grew up in Dedham, Massachusetts, the eldest of three daughters. After graduating from Tufts University, she taught in high schools for a number of years in and around Boston. She gave up teaching in order to write, but quickly realised that she could not make a living from writing short stories, her chosen field at that time. She changed career direction and became a journalist. During her time as a journalist, Shreve travelled to Nairobi, Kenya, where she lived for three years, working as a journalist for an African magazine.
When she returned to the United States, Anita Shreve worked as a writer and editor for a number of magazines in New York. Later, when she began her family, she turned to freelancing, publishing in the New York Times Magazine, New York magazine and dozens of others.
Her first novel, Eden Close, was published in 1989. Since then she has written 12 other novels.
Anita Shreve is married and has two children and three stepchildren, the family live in Longmeadow, Massachusetts.
More about the author and a full bibliography can be found on her web site www.anitashreve.com
MY THOUGHTS AND CONCLUSION
In this novel, Anita Shreve has tackled a very sensitive issue, head on.
‘Testimony’ guides the reader through the issues and effects that a group of teenagers actions have on their parents, their fellow students, their teachers and the local community. ‘Testimony’ should have been a thought provoking and emotive read, but it is not.
I have two reasons for saying this, my first reason is the writing style. A clue is in the novel title, ‘Testimony’. The novel is written as the testimonies of the various characters within the book. This could have been very effective, but it simply does not work in my opinion. Possibly because there are simply too many characters, at least 20, who put in their two pennies worth.
As an example, the testimony from Natalie, the school dinner lady is really not necessary, it adds nothing to the plot whatsoever and to be honest the reader really does not need to know that her family knows Silas’ family through the local church. The fact that his family are church goers and well known the community had been well covered throughout the book! The testimonies are written in the style of speech relevant to the individual character, again this could have worked but it became irritating to have so many switches of dialogue form, some only lasting for a few paragraphs.
Silas’ pieces are presented as letters to his girlfriend, however this did not become apparent until very close to the end of the novel.
My second big issue with this novel is the whole handling of the subject of teenage sexual activity and rape. I am a mother of grown up children and am not naïve enough to imagine that teenagers do not drink, have sex or behave in ways that older people would not approve of. That is what teenagers do and whilst I may or may not approve, it happens!
What went on during the filming of the video that forms the basis of the plot was of course very serious and appropriate action had to be taken. What I did not like was the cavalier attitude the book had towards the young girl, Sienna. Yes, she was a willing participant in the activities and yes, she was a bit of a man eater, but at no point in the novel was any real regard given to why she behaved the way she did or the effect that too early sexual activity can have on a youngster.
Sienna was painted as a ‘bad girl’, a air-head, a bit of a tart, from start to finish, whereas the boy’s characters were turned inside out in the effort to psychoanalyse why they had behaved as they did.
Sexual assault, rape and similar crimes are very serious, this book barely touched upon the realities of this, instead concentrating on the effects the teenage orgy had on the boys and their families.
It is of course a novel and not a true account of events, but even so, I felt this book was lacking in reality. I have read other books by this author and enjoyed ‘The Pilot’s Wife’ and ‘The Last Time They Met’, very much, but ‘Testimony’ does not compare favourably with these.
I suppose that the author’s writing style is an acquired taste, this particular novel is really not worth reading in my opinion unless you are a fan of Ms. Shreve’s work.
Thank you for reading
©brittle1906 january 2011
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