LITERARY REVIEW

Way of prurience

SHEBA THAYIL

A narrative that attempts to capture the tribulations of sexuality.

Testimony, Anita Shreve, Little, Brown, Rs.550.

The entire premise of Testimony is flawed. Has Anita never seen the movie Thirteen? Does she frequently travel to Bhutan, where she lives cloistered with the monks? What? Because Testimony, although well-written, is based on the ‘shocking’ incident of teenage sex. We are to be appalled because older teenage boys have sex with a 14-year-old girl and it is caught on camera in a respectable-in-every other-way New England boarding school. If the girl had been 16, presumably, it would have made a difference. Yes, in a perfect world.

Eye of the storm

The principal of Avery Academy, Mike Bordwin, is given a tape. He sees Silas Quinney, Rob Leicht and James Robles, all promising basketball players, indulging in various sexual acts with a young girl. There is no hint of coercion apparent, teenage hormones are all that’s in the air. Yet this incident has a tsunami-like effect on the school, drowning out careers, lovers and reputations with all the indelibility of anything that appears in the media, and ‘school sex scandal’ is top on the list.

The media, of course, is as intangible an entity as fidelity and morality these days, yet Shreve has based an entire novel on this unholy triumvirate. While the headmaster tries to cover up, or at least contain the fallout, the boys’ mothers reveal the gossamer quality of their marriages and their empathy with their children. James’ mother, Michelle, remembers the baby steps her son made before his giant strides ended in the sex tape. (It might be pertinent to recall Paris Hilton saying how her own sex tape, the quite wonderfully titled One Night in Paris, ‘made me’. This is the pop culture Shreve lives in.) How he lied, got stoned, manipulated and how she knew what the other mothers were thinking: ‘Michelle has a son she cannot trust’. On one level, you feel for her, on another you think: Which mother does?

Murky sides

Silas’ mother Anna has more troubles on her head. While Silas is one half of the only endearing couple in the book, Anna muddies the waters by having an affair with the headmaster. From what we gather it’s for no better reason than boredom, love-lust is a very small part of it, at least from her side. Mike married a woman who should have stood out with a large red cross on her chest, much as they would mark plague-ridden homes in medieval England, because she comes with a Do Not Touch tag in the way she keeps her home. Mike is neat, Meg is slovenly. It may be an old joke now, that divorces come about more often than not because He squeezes the toothpaste from the top, She from the bottom, but many a word spoken in jest….So here, too, we are thinking Been there, Done that, Bought the Tee and it sucks.

Last straw

The love between Silas and a young violinist called Noelle saves Testimony from leaving no trace on the reader. Young love at its purest (and no, that doesn’t mean they don’t sleep together) makes their testimony the most compelling and ultimately tragic. It’s not Silas’ fault that when he discovers his mother’s affair and during a game, flings his ball at the headmaster, we are not as moved as we should be. Married people have affairs, the sun also rises. But when, in the end, Silas’ mother mourns, ‘Where is my beautiful boy?’ it’s a wail that strikes the heart of anyone who has known loss.

When Mike asks Rob and James ‘Why?’ they had sex with a beautiful young girl who was willing and able, not so much. It’s not like he’s asking God the reason behind His Master Plan. Like there is one.