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Testimony    by Anita Shreve order for
by Anita Shreve
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Little, Brown & Co., 2010 (2008)
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* * *   Reviewed by Elizabeth Schulenburg

When Mike Bordwin, headmaster of the prestigious Avery Academy in Vermont, receives a tape depicting a sexual encounter between four of his students, his first instinct is to panic. The three boys involved are all upper-classmen, eighteen and nineteen years old, while the girl is young - very young - fourteen, to be exact. Mike is immediately aware of the legal ramifications for the young men involved, as well as the scandal that will erupt when the local media gets hold of the story. Trying to lessen the consequences for all involved, he initially attempts to keep the lid on the story, handling the situation internally without involving the authorities. The situation, however, quickly spirals out of control, and the lives of everyone involved are deeply affected, some with disastrous consequences.

Due to the graphic, emotional subject matter, this will naturally be a novel that is difficult for many to read. Shreve makes an interesting choice, however, in using multiple, revolving narrators to tell the story of the tragic events. By giving the reader short chapters from many points of view, what could have been an overwhelmingly emotional read is allowed to be held at a distance - like the title of the novel, the narrators are giving their testimony of the events that occurred. No one knows the entire story, but the combined accounts allow the reader to grasp a picture of the whole, without drawing too close to the difficult events.

Shreve does an excellent job of infusing each of her narrators with their own distinct, believable voice. With more than fifteen narrators, this is no small task, and yet the sections form a cohesive whole will still retaining their own individuality. The reader never feels confused, or loses track of who is speaking, because each speaker is so completely him or her self.

One of the most interesting narrators is Sienna, the young girl involved in the incident, who participated with great enthusiasm until she discovered she could be in trouble, and then decided she had been coerced: 'It was very traumatic for me, being the center of attention like that. The other day I was watching Oprah, and I was thinking I could go on Oprah with some other girls my age and we could talk about this and bring it out into the open about how guys can get you drunk and get you to do stuff you would never do, and how you're not even conscious so you're not responsible. And here's the thing I wonder about all the time: If I wasn't conscious, not really, I mean, except that maybe I was, a little bit, then it's as if it never happened, right?'

The other is Ellen, the mother of one of the boys involved, whose second-person narration is haunting in its despair: 'You would not have your son staying in his dormitory another night, even though he has not formally been expelled. You wanted him with you. It was as ferocious a desire as you have had in some time, and it surprised and pleased you that this might still be possible: this ferocity, this desire. He is your son, and you will look after him, as indeed you now think you ought to have been doing all along. You refuse to think about the irony of having sent him away from home so that he would not be in harm's way, only to have him end up in harm's way. Worse. To have allowed him to cause the harm.'

Testimony is a gripping account of what happens when bad decisions are made, and people try to cover them up. Shreve's unique style shows all sides of this disturbing event, and forces the reader to look beyond easy assumptions of guilt or innocence. Because of the subject matter, this is not an easy read, but it is engrossing from beginning to end.

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