By Ekta R. Garg
February 18, 2021
The Test by Sylvain Neuvel
Release date: February 12, 2019
Genre: Political fiction
Writers who are diligent in their craft keep pushing themselves and finding ways to outdo their own work. In that regard, it’s hard to say whether Neuvel outdid his Themis Files trilogy. The Themis Files were hardcore science fiction, and this little novella is grounded in real life. Also, full disclosure, I fell in love with Sylvain Neuvel’s writing right from Sleeping Giants, so it was a pretty safe bet that I was going to love The Test.
When I think about what the book can teach me about writing, though, things get a little more clear. Like Suzanne Collins’s wrap-up to the Hunger Games trilogy in Mockingjay, Neuvel goes for a bold storyline. Many times writers—me included—are a little nervous about pushing boundaries. Yet Neuvel doesn’t hesitate to do so in this book.
He sets up a world in the near future where a country has gone to extreme lengths to vet potential citizens. The vetting process is the test Idir Jalil must take in order to naturalize himself and his family. It’s also a test of Idir’s dream to live in a peaceful land. How far should we go to achieve those dreams? Should we be willing to sacrifice ourselves in the process? What price is too high to pay?
As the child of immigrants, I read immigrant stories with a slightly different lens than some readers might. I’ve heard the stories of my parents’ struggle and seen firsthand the innovative methods they come up with to battle loneliness and homesickness. As a baseline for all their hard work is the intense belief that a drastic choice—leaving behind one’s own country and adopting another as one’s new home—will help a person reach their personal pinnacle. In the case of Idir, though, is reaching the summit worth it?
Neuvel doesn’t hesitate in pushing Idir and the other characters to their personal edges and then pushing them over it. Time and again, writing experts tell us this is exactly what we need to do to craft compelling stories. Saying and hearing it, however, and actually doing it on the page are two drastically different things.
Idir exhibits the kind of bravery that many of us can’t. The kind of bravery that many of us just don’t have. That includes writers in creating these types of characters and stories.
My biggest takeaway from The Test is not to let my fear rule me. Easier said than done, of course, as I’ve said before, but Idir doesn’t let his fear get in the way of his ultimate goal: passing his test and keeping his family safe. At times, for him, these seem like two separate goals. Eventually they merge into the same one.
That’s where the brilliance of Neuvel’s little novella lies. It weaves Idir’s story with his most immediate circumstances with the larger narrative of the test by and on society. In the story, the England of the future has elected to use this multiple choice exam to determine who can stay and who should go back to their home countries. The method can be seen as a test of the story world’s Britain. What kind of society does this version of Britain end up creating? Is it sustainable? Does it contribute to the betterment of England in this version of events?
There are so many layers to this that it’s easy to spend pages and pages examining them. I don’t want to do that here, as much to avoid spoilers as to resist the temptation to jump into the minutia of it all. But even now, two years after its release, The Test challenges me—it’s almost like my own test—as a writer, an author in the making. It reminds me that satisfying reads don’t have to be long or dense. They just have to be meaningful. They have to push writers, and subsequently readers, to the edge and dare them to jump off.
They have to give us the reassurance that we can fly.