Few things can disrupt a schedule more than a good book; my first encounter with Sylvain Neuvel’s fiction cost me a whole day. When I picked up his debut, Sleeping Giants, I had no intention of reading the entire book in a single sitting, and yet I did. Those three hundred pages, packed as they were with giant robots, ancient secrets, conspiracies benevolent or sinister, shocking deaths, and stunning revelations, kept me glued to my chair all through a sunny June afternoon. I immediately ordered the second book of The Themis Files; it too disappeared a day.
The nine hundred or so pages of Sleeping Giants, Waking Gods, and Only Human took their characters around the world, off the world, and through more than twenty eventful years. So it’s a surprise to see that Neuvel’s latest book is a novella largely set in a single room on a single day. Perhaps the author is testing himself: Can he write a short book, about a man in a room, and make it as compelling as his trilogy? I’m happy to answer that he can.
Idir is a good man in a bad time. It’s a near future with few apparent technological advances and much societal decline: We learn, offhand, that bombs go off in the UK with some regularity. Still, things are worse elsewhere: Idir has fled the “guns and impunity” that haunted him in his native Iran. His wife, Tidir, is a journalist who was once kidnapped and subjected to unspecified but easily imagined cruelties; husband and wife became refugees and settled in England. After five years in the UK, Idir must take a citizenship test. Though Tidir and his two children do not have any say in the matter, should Idir fail, all four will be deported.
We meet Idir on the way to the British Citizenship Test; we learn that he is a good man, the sort who won’t let a clerk accidentally undercharge him, who breaks up fights and forgives the rude. He loves his adopted country and, as we see when he starts taking the test, is more knowledgeable about its history than many people born in the UK. So it’s really a shame when, a few minutes and a few questions into his exam, terrorists break into the testing center, shoot a fellow test-taker, and make hostages of everyone else, including Idir’s wife and children.
The unnamed and wholly malignant terrorist has little to do while awaiting the government response to his siege, so he decides to play a game with Idir. At first, he insists that Idir continue his multiple choice test; he even supplies an answer or two when a terrified Idir cannot recall the right response. When the terrorist’s unspecified demands to the government aren’t met, he begins killing hostages. He selects two people at random, lets them plead for their lives, and then asks Idir which he should kill. If the asylum seeker doesn’t pick, both innocents die. And Idir must make his choice in full view of his spouse and children. Guns and impunity have returned to haunt Idir.
Without going too far into spoiler territory, the novella is at its best when we stay in Idir’s head. While we do eventually learn the motives of the tester and his group, I can imagine a version of The Test that never ventured into these unpleasant heads; the switch to their perspectives occurs thirty-odd pages into a short book, after readers have become accustomed to Idir’s voice—but once Neuvel went there, I wanted to hear more. Idir’s motives, after all, are admirable, familiar, and immediately comprehensible, but his tormentors’ pathologies cry out for further investigation.
While readers of The Themis Files may best remember its leveled cities, its battling robots, and its lightning pacing, Neuvel’s trilogy also engaged with the ethical implications of its plot. Neuvel had a light touch with the moral pondering—he wrote commercial pageturners, not philosophical treatises—but he addressed ends and means, the nature of identity, and the quality of forgiveness. The Test is much more explicit in its ethical considerations: It’s about making impossible choices, about individual responsibility, about the obligations of government and the duties of citizens.
Most readers will read The Test in a single sitting. It’s suspenseful, fast-paced, and thought-provoking, with a disturbing and well-earned ending. Though I wish that Neuvel had expanded certain aspects of his story, I can’t complain too much. The Test is bracing, memorable, and all too plausible. I can’t tell you Idir’s final test score, but I’m pleased to inform you that Sylvain Neuvel passes his own exam with flying colors.
Matt Keeley reads too much and watches too many movies. You can find him on Twitter at @mattkeeley.