With about a hundred pages of The Testing to go, I turned to my wife and said ‘This is pretty good, but it needs something extra, if it’s to be anything special.’ She gave a non committal, ‘I see,’ having read the book when it first plopped through the letterbox several months ago. She gave nothing away. We said goodnight, and I carried on reading. And reading and reading. Right up to the books understated but thrilling conclusion.
I can’t quite put my finger on what turned the book from diverting story to compulsive page-turner, but I think it’s that Joelle Charbonneau sends the hooks of her story out slowly. You don’t notice how deep they’ve gone and once she reels you in there’s no escape. You’ve have no choice but to be pulled out of the water and flung on the barbie (or something).
On the face of it The Testing is merely a Hunger Games clone. Teenagers plucked from their home, forced to compete in a set of increasingly difficult and barbaric tasks. Yet whilst this novel doesn’t have the immediate visceral appeal of THG, I think it’s the better book. Firstly the world-building is more credible, but more important is the nature of the contest. In most of these types of book (including Battle Royale and THG), The state have a totalitarian grip. The contestants are pitted against one another as part of some macabre mechanism for holding the status quo. In this case, the children want to be signed up. It’s an honour. Success means a place at university. The rub is that the true nature of the games is mostly kept hidden from the rest of the population (in direct contrast to THG).
Further to that, whilst the applicants are pitted against one another, none of the tests demand direct combat between them, but the fewer contestants there are, the more chance there is of success. Whilst killing an opponent isn’t the aim of The Testing, there are inducements for doing so. The process feeds into itself. The purpose of Testing is to determine whether the children have what it takes to be leaders. Ruthlessness might be considered a virtue, but psychopathy, probably not.
The backdrop to the story is, of course, post-apocalypse, and this adds further poignancy. The Testing is intended to create leaders who won’t make the same mistakes as their predecessors, but whether this is to kill less easily, or more readily is difficult to pinpoint. The world Charbonneau has created is by and large plausible. The Testing itself a little far fetched, but its existence within the world does make sense. For the contestants trust is a continual issue and it is on these shifting sands much of the novel’s tension is generated.
There is a female-male spine holding up the book, as is traditional for this type of fiction. Both characters are well drawn and their relationship believable. As the candidates near their goal, the plays and betrayals begin to bubble to the surface and shadowy factions show their hand. The final chapters are an utterly compelling meditation on the follies of man and our inability to learn from the past. The conclusion is quietly explosive, leaving things open for sequel. A sequel, which on the strength of this novel can’t come soon enough.