By Ekta R. Garg, Reviewer
February 4, 2021
The Test by Sylvain Neuvel
Release date: February 12, 2019
Genre: Political fiction
Rated: Binge it! / 5 stars
Sylvain Neuvel is one of my favorite authors. His “Themis Files” trilogy was fantastic, although I never thought I’d fall in love with a hardcore science fiction series. Neuvel, however, managed to bring in the best of every element of storytelling in the books: adventure; wonder; romance; villains; technology that wows you. His writing is lyrical and funny and engaging. By the end, I honestly thought I was watching the robots in the “Themis Files” myself.
When I heard about his next release, then, I jumped on the chance to read it. The Test came out two years ago this month and shocked me with its slimness. The book is more of a novella, not sci-fi at all, and just above a hundred pages. But, oh, what those hundred pages contain.
First, as an official reviewer, I’ll give you a quick synopsis. Idir Jalil is an immigrant to England in the near future and has been in the country for five years with his wife, Tidir, and two children. He and his wife decided to leave their native Iran when their son was a year old to escape the terrorism there. Tidir was a journalist in Tehran and was persecuted many times for reporting the truth. Idir finally decided he didn’t want to put his family through that anymore, so they moved.
After five years, the time has come for Idir to apply for citizenship, and Britain has instituted a new policy: if the head of the household can pass a citizenship test, then the entire family is granted citizenship. Idir jumps at the chance. He adores his wife and wants to break ties with the past. He wants his children to be proud residents of their adopted country. He wants to become a full-fledged member of society in England. The test is multiple choice and only 25 questions, so it should be easy enough to pass.
On the day of the test, after only a few questions, terrorists storm the test center and take everyone there hostage. Idir is horrified. Tidir and the children came with him to the test center for moral support, and Idir can’t believe he’s living through a repeat of the country he left. Worse, Tidir and his two young children, watching the test-takers through a large window in the classroom, are now kneeling on the floor with guns to their heads.
The head terrorist shoots one of the other people in the classroom, and Idir moves to help the victim. That simple act of kindness puts him in the sights of the terrorist. With taunts of “Samaritan,” the terrorist promises to kill someone every 15 minutes unless the police meet his demands. Idir, he says, will be the one to decide who dies.
In another part of the book, in connection to the administration of the citizenship tests, Deep is undergoing an evaluation at work. He wants nothing more than to advance, to use his skills and apply all the studying he’s done to move ahead. He could take the administration of the tests to a whole different level if someone just gave him a chance. The Test draws a direct correlation between the two.
It’s hard to talk about the impact this book has without completely spoiling it, and I’ve spent most of the day wondering whether I should do just that. In the end, I decided I couldn’t. The book’s devastation is best experienced as a reader. No matter how eloquently I might present my case for why I love this book so much, nothing I say can convey the same emotional impact Neuvel’s book has. People use a lot of buzzwords to describe novels and fiction these days, but this little tome truly is a gut punch.
The 104 pages here dig into some heavy questions without ever raising them directly. Questions about racism and elitism are clear. So are more subtle questions about how a government goes about determining who gets to earn the right of citizenship and who should be denied it.
The fictional citizenship test is horrifying and fascinating by turns. Neuvel mines the human psyche and presents assumptions that are hard to argue. Yet idealists and those of us who believe in what is good and right would argue with them.
Recent events in our country make The Test mandatory reading. People point to classics like The Handmaid’s Tale and 1984 as warning signs, but I feel confident in saying The Test should be added to that list. The first two books examine what happens in a society after major changes have taken place. Neuvel’s book tackles the early years of how those changes happen. For that reason, I believe readers should Binge The Test.