Little Brown & Co, October 2008
Anita Shreve's latest novel Testimony opens with a shocking description of child pornography that may leave Shreve's regular audience gasping for air, and perhaps even reaching for one of her previous novels to make sure she is the same author that they remember.
As the story progresses, however, it becomes clear that this was in fact the author's intention, and not merely an unfortunate miscalculation by a normally perceptive writer. The unavoidable discomfort with the first chapter is meant to frame the entire novel, and what better way to create this type of tension than by relating a graphic play-by-play description of a high school gang-bang that will leave even the most progressive reader checking over his shoulder to make certain that no one is watching him read it?
Don't answer that. Testimony is somewhat of a departure for Shreve in more ways than one, but her faithful readers will still find her incisive character development intact. The plot is uncovered through a series of flashbacks and flash-forwards detailing the experiences and feelings of a dozen or so characters touched by the incident over a two year period. The story unfolds on and around the campus of a small private Vermont prep-school, and the action begins with the headmaster's viewing of the lascivious video tape of his students. The ensuing scandal and all of its repercussions are revealed to the reader through series of short chapters, mainly triggered by a research student's inquiry into the events after the fact. This sociology student is contacting anyone and everyone connected with the incident that caused a national scandal two years earlier; some of the recollections are told to the researcher, and some of them are just seen as a reaction to the researcher contacting the characters.
Shreve employs the interesting technique of maintaining tension by revealing the whole story piecemeal, out of chronological sequence, and from seemingly countless perspectives, but it does make the book seem a bit disjointed at times. It is difficult to stay involved with characters when you only hear from them once, in a single chapter, and the more prevalent ones only star in a couple of chapters a hundred pages apart. Nevertheless, Shreve somehow manages to keep things interesting up to the very end, when true to form, we do in fact find out that there is a bit more to the story than we had been led to believe during the first three quarters of the novel.
Shreve also manages to paint fairly vivid pictures of many of her characters by telling the reader just what they need to know about each one, although she struggles to do this effectively for those who only appear for a few pages - to tell their tale and vanish, never to be seen or heard from again. In previous work such as The Last Time They Ever Met, Shreve was more successful in managing the flashback and flash-forward technique to control the gentle reveal of story by severely limiting the number of principal characters. And although the tone throughout most of her novel is rather appropriately somber and sad, for some reason Shreve seems to want to lighten the mood at the end. Justifying this optimistic conclusion seems like an uphill battle given the tragic circumstances and fallout from the scandal, and it is a battle that Shreve does not quite win. The ending is certainly believable, it's just not quite acceptable, failing to remove the bad taste left in our mouths by the rest of the novel.
Although Testimony will probably mostly satisfy Shreve fans with its smooth prose and clever use of character voice, it is questionable whether or not she will snare any new fans from her first-time readers.