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Testimony by Anita Shreve: sex and fragility in the neighbourhood school

At a New England boarding school, a sex scandal breaks. Even more shocking than the sexual acts themselves is the fact that they were caught on camera. A Pandora’s box of revelations, the graphic images trigger a chorus of voices – those of the men, women, teenagers and parents involved in the scandal – testimonies that detail the ways in which lives can be derailed or destroyed in one foolish moment.

As a long-term admirer both of Anita Shreve (apologies in advance for the frankly appalling music on the author’s webpage – why do they do that??) and the concept of sex scandals in any shape or form, this book seemed like an ideal Christmas treat for me, and so it proved. In the end. I have to say, however, that the beginning of this novel is horribly clunky and somehow not well written. So much so that twice I found myself closing the book, staring at the cover and asking myself whether this was in fact the Anita Shreve I know and love for her subtlety and clarity, or some strange changeling? We start with Mike, the headmaster of the school in question, considering the tape and the fallout from it, as if from a distance of some years, and then we’re immediately into the moment when he views it for the first time:

It had produced something very like radiation sickness throughout the school, reducing the value of an Avery education, destroying at least two marriages that he knew of, ruining the future of three students, and, most horrifying of all, resulting in a death. After Kasia brought Mike the tape in a white letter envelope (as if he might be going to mail it to someone!), Mike walked home with it and watched it on his television – an enormously complicated and frustrating task since he first had to find his own movie camera that used similar tapes and figure out how to connect its various cables to the television so that the tape could play through the camera.

And so on and so on. Eh?? These sentences are simply way too long, especially for the start of a novel. To be honest, it felt very much like Shreve was thrashing about whilst trying to get into the story at this point. And that’s fine – we all do this. But thankfully most of us – or our editors – have the sense to ditch those initial few pages and start from when we really get going. I think the nine-page section of Mike that commences the book should have been scrapped and that information drip-fed through the Mike sections later on. Then we would have been able to start Testimony with Ellen (the mother of one of the boys) and her gloriously crisp sentences:

You wait for the call in the night. You’ve waited for years. You’ve imagined the voice at the other end, officious and male, always male. You hear the words, but you can’t form the sentences.

Bliss. I loved Ellen. I would happily have had the whole novel with just her, but then I would have missed much that is good in this book.

Anyway, that said, the time shifts are slightly bewildering and, as I travelled deeper into the story, they continued to be so. In addition, at the start, we see quite a few characters – in the tape – very quickly, but have no idea who they are. I did keep having to go back to these first few pages as I met the different people in the text to work out which one did what and to whom. It’s all rather unsettling, and not in a good way. Moreover, call me hypocritically old-fashioned if you must, but I didn’t think it was particular good literary, or indeed any, form to plunge us (as it were) immediately into viewing the sex scandal tape. I would have preferred to have built up the tension before coming to the main course, but then again I am a woman …

After that start therefore, it took a while for me to regain my confidence in the power of Shreve’s writing, but it did come back. I relaxed a little and began to enjoy the way she weaves the main characters back and forth through the plot – and time – before bringing us all to a masterly conclusion with a nice and satisfying twist.

I think she also portrays the different character voices with great skill. The voice of Sienna, the young girl in the tape, is spiky, vulnerable and young, whereas the aforementioned Mike is (apart from the start) solid, clear and strong – even when his whole personal and professional life falls apart. And I didn’t even like Mike that much.

However, it’s both interesting and perhaps brave to have so many viewpoints in this book – not only do we have most of the main characters, but there’s the odd section from a reporter and the new headmaster, who swoop in with their take on the story, when we least expect them.

But the main theme, I think, of this novel, is human experience, and how an ordinary life can change utterly because of seemingly unimportant decisions taken or not taken. By oneself or by others. In that respect, it almost becomes a modern retelling of Macbeth, but with multiple characters taking their own small steps to death, damnation or possibly even a distant and hoped-for redemption, of sorts. I was particularly impressed by the story arc of Silas (one of the boys in the tape) and his girlfriend, Noelle. There’s one scene that struck me as extraordinarily human when, at the key point of realisation, Noelle’s young room-mate pulls her into bed, under the duvet, and simply holds her for hours, saying nothing, while she cries. The compassion here is piercing. And it’s a lesson in how to respond adequately to grief for us all. Silas’ emotional fallout is also superb. Here he is lamenting (and yes I think that is the right word in this instance) the end of his relationship to Noelle:

And now this thing has come between us, and there will never be a day when it is not there, and no matter what I say, there will be the picture of me on the tape doing things to that girl, and I know that you will never be able to get the images out of your mind, they will be there forever, every time I touch you, every time I kiss you, even when I am just sitting in a room and I look over at you, any time you could be picturing the thing that happened on the tape and it will be like something harsh and ugly is always in the room with us, is always in your mind, and nothing could ever be any good between us again, and that is the hardest part. I could go to jail, I could stand the humiliation, I could even let my father hit me if he wanted to, but I couldn’t bear to look into your eyes and see the tape running, I just couldn’t.

I must also say how much the ending moved me. There’s no real explanation given as to why the boys and Sienna did what they did, although further details are added towards the end that shine a deeper light on the evening in question, bringing out the shadows and suppositions in greater clarity. Because what this book essentially says is that people, in the right circumstances, or the wrong ones, will make terrible decisions for a variety of reasons, known and unknown, and depending on who they are with. Even when, for a short time, it might go against their apparent nature. And it tells us also that as a result life may not come good for them afterwards in the way that anyone could have hoped before the turning point occurred. That, to me, rings true, and in a way that few authors have the courage to convey. Life is fragile, our decisions are fragile, and once everything has changed there is indeed no way back.

So, in conclusion, I’d say that though this probably isn’t the best offering from Shreve, and there are others I’d recommend ahead of this novel if you’ve not encountered her before, for the reasons I’ve stated above it’ll still be more than worth the money you spend on it. I’d give it, if forced to give any grade at all, a very high B Plus or an A Minus. Enjoy.

Testimony by Anita Shreve (Abacus Press, 2009), ISBN: 978 0 349 11902 1)

[Anne has no objection at all to rude sex in books. In the right place. For a list of her literary peccadilloes, please click here.]

About annebrooke

Anne Brooke lives in Surrey, UK, and writes in a variety of genres, including gay erotic romance, fantasy, comedy, thrillers, biblical fiction and the occasional chicklit novel. When not writing, she spends time in the garden attempting to differentiate between flowers and weeds, and in the allotment attempting to grow vegetables. Occasionally, she can also be found in the kitchen making cakes. Every now and again, they are edible. Her websites can be found at:,, and (for fantasy fiction).

8 comments on “Testimony by Anita Shreve: sex and fragility in the neighbourhood school

  1. Nikki
    February 4, 2010

    Yes, isn’t there a rule that when you come to editing you end up scrapping the first chapter so that you hit the ground running. Given the content of the book I think it’s right to use a lot of different voices given that so many people are affected. I have a fascination with boarding schools – they seem such a perfect place for scandal! But if this isn’t the first Shreve you’d recommend, what would you recommend?

  2. annebrooke
    February 4, 2010

    You may be right, Nikki – I certainly did that with my Pink Champagne and Apple Juice, and nobody’s ever complained. Yet …

    If you like boarding schools, you’ll love this one! Maybe you should read it first anyway? But other Shreves I can recommend are:

    Body Surfing
    A Wedding in December.

    But there are loads of others too! She’s an interesting women’s book writer.



  3. Jackie
    February 4, 2010

    Though I’ve read all of the earlier Shreve novels, I haven’t kept up with the most recent ones, so I was looking forward to this review. My book discussion group recently read her “Light On Snow”, which tackled another version of a terrible decision. I wonder if this a theme that the author is exploring from different vantage points? Despite all of the drawbacks to this one, and it is an unusual topic for this type of book, I might give it a try, just to see how it all turns out.

  4. annebrooke
    February 4, 2010

    Oh yes, Jackie, Light on Snow – thanks for the reminder about that one! Yes, you may well be right – Shreve is certainly going for the big issues. I think you might well enjoy this one too.



  5. Breanne
    February 8, 2010

    My Shreve favorites are Fortune’s Rocks and The Last Time They Met.

    I completely agree about this Shreve seeming different from her previous work–and not in a fresh, new way.

    I had recently checked out some Jodi Picoult at the insistance of my stepmom, and I wasn’t overly impressed with what I found. I thought Picoult is a wonderful storyteller but not artistically the best writer.

    The entire time I was reading The Testimony, I had to keep reminding myself I was reading Shreve, and not Picoult. The change POV from chapter to chapter, the focus on a hot topic or scandalous issue–all contributing factors that really felt more like Picoult than Shreve.

    Shreve’s work has always seem more artful, more descriptive, more character-based. I missed these traits in The Testimony, and I hope her next work returns to the old Shreve I’ve known and loved a little better.

  6. annebrooke
    February 8, 2010

    Thanks, Breanne. Yes, I think you’re right! It does feel more like Picoult than Shreve. I enjoy both writers – for very different reasons – but like you I hope Shreve’s next returns to her more familiar tone. You can’t improve on perfection after all …


    Anne B

  7. Pingback: “Testimony”ehk “Weil sie sich liebten” | RaamatuNarr

  8. Pingback: “Testimony” ehk “Weil sie sich liebten” | RaamatuNarr

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This entry was posted on February 4, 2010 by in Entries by Anne, Fiction, Fiction: 21st Century, Fiction: women's and tagged , , .



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