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Testimony, is a 2009 novel from popular American fiction writer Anita Shreve.
Its premise is pretty simple. It begins with the discovery, and extremely graphic description, of a videotape depicting a group of New England boarding school students, one of them a fourteen year old girl, in a sexual tryst.
We at first see this video through the eyes of the headteacher who is both horribly shocked and also in two minds about how to go forward as he is torn between wanting to do the right thing and also how to maintain the reputation of the school.
From hereon in the story fragments into lots of different directions. In essence it is a Rashomon-type story where the events of the pivotal discovery are seen through the eyes of a number of people involved both directly and indirectly. These include the aforementioned headteacher, other pupils, a couple of the perpetrators, the female victim, and partners and parents of those involved. In order to set more of a scene as well, these 'testimonials' jump around from the lead-up to the events shown on the video and then those afterwards.
Against all of this, there are a lot of other common story tropes that are touched upon. These include class, as one of the perpetrators is a well regarded 'local boy' on a scholarship rather than one of the more privileged pupils as well as differing views as to the role of the female in the assault.
In essence, I did enjoy this book and it certainly kept me gripped until the end. Looking back however, I do still have a number of reservations. I have read Shreve's books before, and I feel that she is definitely very good at drawing up characters very concisely and that is probably why I feel that overall the book is a success. However, she does raise a lot of problematic and widely discussed issues in this book without really giving them room to breathe or really be considered. For the most part, I think the story is very believable in this age of viral news and focus on teenage sexuality and that is why I find it a shame that Shreve did not really take the story with both hands like she could have done.
There is some quite distressing stuff in it, not least the very graphic first chapter and it does touch on a number of perspectives where the blame for the incident is shockingly put on the victim by a couple of the characters which is quite believable when you look at a lot of what has been going on with sexually aggressive trolling on Twitter of prominent female figures. This is why it is quite disappointing that Shreve did not explore this further as I think that she could have really made some very salient points about these issues and explored them through these otherwise really rather well drawn out characters. Instead, sadly for the most part she shies away which is a real wasted opportunity.
The way the story develops is otherwise engaging however and for the most part the characters are very well fleshed out and believable, even if they are largely unsympathetic and self serving. I have to say that I did get through it quite quickly, which is a rare thing for me at the moment as I am quite time pressed. I guess that the episodic structure of it makes it quite easy to pick up and put down again.
At worst, I suppose I felt that there was something quite pedestrian about the way things panned out and were executed. I almost felt as though elements of it could almost could have been exercises of the type that I was used to when I studied creative writing - that is character studies reacting to a situation.
In conclusion, yes I would recommend this book as a not pleasant but certainly diverting read. However, I can't help but feel that it would have worked more successfully had Shreve kept up the momentum from the appropriately shocking opening and delved a little bit deeper into the issues that were raised.
Mike Bordwin is delighted when he is offered the job as headmaster of the prestigious Avery Academy, a private high school with excellent standards. The calm school environment is rocked when Mike is handed a tape showing pupils engaged in various sex acts, teenagers have always experimented with sex but the tape shows three older male students with a 14 year old girl and the tape has already made it onto YouTube. Things go from bad to worse when the girl claims that her drink was spiked and she had been raped by the older boys. It is clear that Mike is dealing with a major scandal and that the events of that night are going to change people's lives forever.
Testimony is written in many different voices, a researcher has written to people involved in the scandal asking them their views and they all have a chance to share their recollections of what happened as well as speculate why the boys behave in the way they did. The book covers normal life before the incident as well as the short term and longer term aftermath. The story is told by the boys involved, their parents, teachers and friends. The girl involved only had a very small voice in the book.
Rape is a controversial subject, at one end of the scale there is stranger rape where a woman is grabbed from the street and attacked and a woman would be treated sympathetically. At the other end of the scale is so called "date rape" where there is more of a grey area; is the woman at fault because she kissed a man or is she making the whole thing up to cover up for her promiscuity? This is something the book handled badly, it could have been made into a situation where things were a lot less black and white and the reader is left to draw their own conclusions to who was to blame. The other issues involved the age of consent and whether or not school sports teams are breeding grounds for producing macho young men who have such big egos that they are more likely to treat girls badly.
The characters were a mixed bag. One of the boys was shown to be a well rounded character, the other two were stereotypes. The girl was a terrible character who not only talked like a stereotypical dumb teenager but she seemed to relish the attention she was receiving. This is what spoiled an otherwise good book, the girl was so unbelievable that any chapters with her in me got me really annoyed at the lazy and stereotypical way she had been portrayed. The boys were shown to be normal young men and showing the girl in a similar light would have made the book far more believable. The focus was all wrong, I understand that the author wanted to show that normal boys get caught up in a moment of madness but surely the event would have had some impact on the girl too.
'Testimony' is the first of Anita Shreve's books that I have read and for the most part I found that it was a real page turner. The style of writing each chapter in different voices worked really well and the fact that the book was broken down into small chunks made it an ideal book to read at bedtime as I could read a couple of chapters at a time and then put it down again. If the teenage girl had been a better character then the book would have been a winner as otherwise it was such a good read. I will certainly give Anita Shreve another chance as an author after reading 'Testimony' but can only give this book three stars.
~Can you buy Security?~
Avery Academy is located in a sleepy little Vermont town and is exactly the sort of place parents choose to send their children in the hope of keeping them away from the wilder temptations of the 'real world'. Tucked amongst beautiful hills and offering lots of healthy outdoor pursuits and noble character building activities, it's the kind of place where time seems to stand still. The changing of the colours of the leaves in autumn is about the most excitement this place has seen in years.
Like the best laid plans of mice and men, the aspirations of parents sometimes don't work out. Whether your kids are growing up in a rough part of the inner city or closeted away in the cosiness of an exclusive place of education, they're still kids and prone to do what kids will do. And what kids will do is go to parties, drink too much and now and then behave 'inappropriately'. In the opening pages of Anita Shreve's 'Testimony', Mike, the headmaster of Avery Academy is about to find out just how badly things can go wrong and how the follies of one night can reverberate far beyond the walls of his school and change the lives of those involved and those around them forever.
Saturday Night Fever
Mike has just been passed a video by his secretary with a warning that he really does need to give it his immediate attention. In the film three young men and a pretty young woman are doing what young men and young women sometimes do - though admittedly not always in foursomes and rarely on film. As the film rolls on the faces come into view and Mike is horrified - one is the son of a local family who are his good friends, another is a boy who's just been offered a place at one of the best colleges in New England and the third is doing a 'postgraduate' year before taking up a basketball scholarship. It's bad enough that boys he trusted and respected are engaging in such activity but things are about to get much worse. The girl who appears to be having such a 'good time' becomes recognisable as one of the school's 'freshmen' which means she's just 14 years old. In Vermont sex with an under-age girl is classified as 'sexual assault' and the boys are in big trouble.
~Tell it Like it is~
Over the course of 305 pages Shreve presents us with the 'testimonies' of the players in this particular smutty little drama including the boys, their parents, the staff at the school, the girl at the centre of the 'assault', her room mate, even a journalist and the local police chief. More than twenty different characters chip in to give us their take on the events of that cold winter night. Hopping back and forth between the alleged assault, the events running up to what happened and the shocking aftermath, Shreve attempts to peel away the layers of what happened and more importantly perhaps, why it happened.
~Shreve or Picoult - hard to tell~
I usually rather like Anita Shreve - most of her books are excellent and she does a pretty good line in multiple character narrative but some things just didn't work for me in this book. Firstly there were just too many people giving their accounts of the events - I struggled to get any real feeling or empathy for most of them and many of the 'voices' were just too similar. Those that weren't - especially the unpleasant little 'victim' and one of the boys - were just too clichéd and corny. They read as 'grown up pretending to be a kid' voices. I struggled to find anyone to really care about in such a large cast of characters. A lot more could have been made of the debate around whether or not the girl 'asked for it' and what impact that might or might not have had on the guilt and its consequences. There was no debate on these matters and the girl is painted very much in black and white - she's bad, she's a liar and she knew exactly what she was doing and cried 'rape' when she realised she was in trouble. This could and perhaps should have been a much more complex evaluation of whether and why she really did lead the boys on but it wasn't raised - we were shown she was bad and just left to condemn her without any shades of grey.
I spotted a lot of the plot long before I think I was supposed to. As soon as you realise that one of the main protagonists isn't giving any testimony and all his words are from letters to his girlfriend, you can't help but draw your own conclusions about what might have happened. You can also tell that the headmaster's life has changed beyond recognition but piecing together why he should feel so responsible takes time and ultimately left me thinking that I didn't actually care all that much.
At times I had to check the cover because I was lulled into thinking this was just another Jodi Picoult novel - it contained all the 'moral dilemma' positioning that makes me find her books so irritating but sadly little of the shock and revelation I expect from Anita Shreve. I was deeply disappointed by this rather shallow little book which was just very much 'of its type' - a genre novel with few surprises or twists. It's a dangerous tactic to wham all your 'shock value' on the table in the first few pages and I felt it was a risky technique which fell badly flat for me in this book.
Testimony, Anita Shreve
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 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 are popular in 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 November 2010
Please note:- my reviews may be found on other sites under the same user name.
I was slightly dubious about this book, never having read anything by Anita Shreve previously, but in fact it is a really well constructed and written story.
It is important not to say too much about the plot due to the way in which it unfolds, but the action centres around a scandal in an elite American high school, and the repercussions for students and teachers alike. There are a number of different narrators and Shreve is skilful in weaving these together so that they are consistent, yet call into doubt some of the claims made by different characters - so we're unsure of the exact chain of events until the very end. It is a very good examination of how decisions made in a split second can alter the course of one person or indeed many people's lives forever, and quite starkly set out in this respect.
My only minor criticism is that the multi-character narration results in slightly two-dimensional characters - I would have liked to see them fleshed out slightly more in order to understand more about their impulses and motivations. Overall, however, a gripping read which has left me wanting to try more of Anita Shreve's novels.