By Ekta R. Garg, Editor
February 11, 2021
The Test by Sylvain Neuvel
Release date: February 12, 2019
Genre: Political fiction
In The Test, Idir Jalil does what pretty much any head-of-household wants to do: he makes choices to protect his family.
First, he protects the dignity of his wife, Idir, by not asking her what the terrorists have done to her in their home of Tehran. Idir is a journalist who has stood for the truth time and again, and time and again domestic terrorists have kidnapped her and tortured her and sent her home. Idir sees the worst in Tidir’s eyes, but he’s not going to ask so she doesn’t have to undergo the humiliation of reliving it in the telling.
At some point he moves his family to England because there, he believes, they’ll be safer. There no one will storm their home in the middle of the night and snatch the love of his life in front of his eyes and do unspeakable things to her in cold, dark places. In England, Tidir can do whatever she wants and no one will bat an eye.
It’s a simple story, one told time and again by immigrants the world over in both real life and fiction. I have to confess, as the child of immigrants and the wife of one myself I’m kind of partial to these sorts of stories. The struggle; the longing for home. The gut-deep determination to keep achieving and keep moving forward in one’s adopted country. The sheer bravery it takes to leave behind everything familiar—language; food; culture—and go to a place and make the decision to live there forever.
As an editor, then, I lean into immigrant stories pretty easily, because I can identify, to a degree, how the immigrants must have felt. When Idir’s worst nightmare comes true—when terrorists storm the center where he’s taking his citizenship test that will guarantee his entire family citizenship if he passes—I reacted with a horror that felt personal. Idir was only trying to do the right thing, and it still went wrong.
The brilliance of The Test comes in the tandem story being told of Deep, the other character taking a test of a different kind. Deep is in the training program to join the British Values Assessment team, the group of government employees who administer the citizenship tests. As the narration reveals how Deep is connected to Idir’s test and the novella progresses, a person could easily find themselves asking some uncomfortable questions.
As an editor, I love it when stories push me—and readers—to think about life’s truths in an honest way.
And it’s clear that Neuvel’s little book does just that. One reviewer on Amazon gave the book two stars, saying, “The story was very disturbing… I slept very poorly and had nightmares for several nights after reading this book.” The reader probably didn’t appreciate the nightmares, but this proves the book did exactly what it was intended to do: it drove deep to the heart of the issues that face the world today.
Neuvel does this in a way that feels both local and universal, that greatest of balancing acts that every editor hopes to see in manuscripts. By focusing on one person and describing his family’s struggles, Neuvel connects those struggles to the larger problems people face. It offers us a wonderful and yet uncomfortable reminder that people are people, no matter where we go. Their struggles are essentially the same the world over.
What astounded me was how slim the book was and yet how it managed to do so much. It’s only nine chapters long. Four of those chapters come from Idir’s point of view in first person. Four chapters focus on Deep in the test center in third person, so we get to pull back a little and see and hear more about who he is in relation to Idir and the others in the test center. The penultimate chapter in the book melds the two storylines—because, make no mistake, there are two separate storylines going here, even as they weave within one another.
The Test is proof positive that a writer doesn’t need to produce reams of pages in order to make an impact. The story is as long as it needs to be. While some might argue that we could have spent a little more time with Deep to find out what happens to him later, Neuvel gives us enough hints in the later part of the book that we can guess.
We know what happens to Idir, because he tells us in the last chapter. The story ends where it starts: with him and his family. It’s comes back full circle, and it does so in a way that breaks the heart. No wonder that Amazon reviewer was having nightmares.
Yet as an editor, on a mechanical, practical level, Neuvel’s book is perfect. He does what he sets out to do, and in accomplishing that he shows that writing truly is an art. I wonder what the early drafts of this novella looked like. I’m curious to know what got left out and how the decision was made to leave things in. It’s a testament to Neuvel’s talent and the talent of his editor(s) that the book creates the impact it does.
Don’t feel like you have to write long. The story should be as long as it needs to be. We often hear both statements from writing experts, and Sylvain Neuvel shows us how to accomplish it with The Test.