I have read a great deal post-apocalypse dystopian fiction. It seems to be becoming it’s own sub-genre, but there are far fewer novels that deal with the moment of collapse itself (that don’t involve zombies!). James Smythe has conceived a believable near-future, and then imagined a way to destroy it. Whilst not perfect, the result is a scary, credible and thought-provoking read. He also employs one of the boldest literary devices I have encountered for a while.
The story is told entirely using testimony. Each of the relatively short chapters is an account of the disaster, told by one of its survivors. There is no dialogue, no interaction between the characters in the book, just stories about the people they met, the people they loved, the people who have died. From the outset, you know everybody talking has survived, so one potential source of tension and excitement is lost, yet Smythe’s novel delivers both thrills and emotion. I should imagine writing the novel in this way was exceptionally hard work, and the results could have been horribly stilted. Smythe manages to hold it all together, delivering a very effective piece of literature.
The novel’s narrators are from all around the globe, from all walks of life, from US Chief of Staff, to a Chinese online gamer. Some voices appear more than others; there are core of six or seven narrators that form the spine of the novel, but other voices are brought in to add flavour and authenticity to the mix. This idea works well, as it allows Smythe to show different viewpoints of the same events, giving the story a global perspective (though most of the narrators are from the UK and the US).
The question at the heart of this novel is ‘What if God spoke to us?’ All of us at once. A mysterious broadcast is heard by everyone across the globe simultaneously. The message, only a few lines long, is heard in English. It’s origin and meaning are ambiguous, but there is a strong implication that it is from a sentient being, who watches over us. The fallout from this phenomenon is manifold. Is it Aliens? God? If it is God, which religion is right? Is it telling the truth? All of the characters have a theory, and so does the rest of the world. There are huge ramifications for world religion and geo-politics. Thrown into the mix are some shadowy, probably middle eastern, terrorists, and some shocking attacks against the US. From there, things fall apart.
Smythe could be accused of taking the all-too-easy route of demonising the US for being responsible for all the world’s ills, but though the White House’s response to events didn’t totally ring true, I think the descent to Armageddon is a plausible one. Yet, as I approached the end of the novel, I still had some reservations. There seemed to be too many open ends; I could see no chance of a conclusion that wasn’t farcical. I couldn’t see how Smythe would tie the novel off without it being silly; he author is a cleverer man than me.
Some readers may not like the ending, but I very much did. If you don’t like thrillers with ambiguous endings, you’re probably not going to like ‘The Testimony’. Very little is resolved. The What? How? and Why? almost fade into the background, and Smythe even leaves the reader with yet another unanswered question. What if? There is a clever change in direction, from apocalypse thriller, to introspective thought-provoker. The novel becomes about what makes us human, and how we respond to tragedy. Curiously, my abiding thought at the end of ‘The Testimony’ was the last line of the ‘Cat in The Hat’ – ‘What would you do?’. This questioning conclusion gives the novel added power over the reader, making it a wholly satisfying read.