by Anita Shreve; Boston, Little, Brown and Company, 2009, 320 pages, $25.99 hardcover, $14.99 softcover
Dr. Hackman is associate clinical professor of psychiatry, University of Maryland School of Medicine, Baltimore.
The book Testimony is the latest novel from Anita Shreve. I should admit from the outset that I find this author's work compelling and have read many of her previous novels. In fact, I had read Testimony two weeks before it arrived in my mailbox for review.
Testimony could have been pulled out of recent headlines. It deals with a sex scandal at an exclusive private boarding school. In the first sentence of the first chapter, the headmaster of the Avery Academy receives a videotape. The tape shows three boys, (upperclassmen at the academy) and a 14-year-old female student drinking and engaged in a variety of graphically described sexual activities. This devastating event and the catastrophic fallout from the tape create the focal point for the novel, which considers the episode from the viewpoints of more than a dozen characters whose lives have been affected. Each chapter is told in a different voice: the headmaster, each of the boys, the girl, various parents, other students, a cafeteria worker at the academy, a reporter, an attorney, and a police officer. Sometimes the characters are prodded by questions from a researcher who is writing about the scandal several years later.
Anita Shreve succeeds in giving the reader multiple perspectives as the pieces of the story come together into a coherent narrative. Shreve has a keen understanding of group process and of psychopathology. I found myself constructing differential diagnoses for several of the central characters. And I liked the follow-up with the characters in the months after the tape emerged. When such events occur in real life, they remain in the press for a few weeks, but the public does not usually learn much about what happens to the principals after the fact. Many of the characters are nuanced and multidimensional, and the voices of some of the Avery Academy parents ring particularly true.
The novel is not without its flaws. Some of the repercussions of the tape seem both melodramatic and disappointingly predictable. The "mystery" of who is behind the camera filming the video adds nothing to the story. Further, the 14-year-old girl in the tape is a manipulative and disturbing character; although this may be necessary for the novel to work, I found it disquieting.
Still the novel held my attention and is not a book I will soon forget. Testimony is thought provoking, psychologically sophisticated, and well worth reading.
The reviewer reports no competing interests.