Imagine if you, and everyone around you, suddenly hears a voice. It comes out of a static noise that will make you, and everyone else, freeze in your steps. ‘My children’, the indefinable voice says, ‘Do not be afraid’. What would you do? How would you behave? What would you believe?
This is the premise of the new thriller The Testimony by James Smythe. Twenty-six people present their points of view on this mysterious announcement in a narrative that reads like a series of journal or news posts, blog posts even. There is no wise all-seeing persona, instead we spend the entire novel moving between our twenty-six spectators – or listeners. The voice or ‘The Broadcast’ was heard across the planet and so we have witnesses from America, Britain and France to South Africa, India and New Zealand. They range from high government officials, unemployed and doctors to the retired, criminal and scientists. All have their own idea of what this voice means – some of them turn to God, others think of aliens while more prepare to face a perceived human threat with firm action. There are a few, however, who hear nothing at all. What does that mean?
The Testimony raises questions that many citizens in a modern world aren’t equipped to answer – for many God is forced back into their lives leading to riots outside the churches, confusion among the main faiths and the birth of new religions. But for others, including a nun, who see nothing of God in the Broadcast, there must be a secular reason and, for many, the response is violent. Terrorists are reborn and those on the extreme of politics and religion use the Broadcast to tear the world apart.
But what if there is no explanation? Can people live with that? And when the novel takes an apocalyptic turn, what if there is no reason for whether one dies or survives, for the loss and the fear?
Starting The Testimony, I had some concerns about its structure. I wondered how I, who can barely remember the names of my closest relatives, would cope with the multitude of voices and stories but I needn’t have worried. The voices are distinct, each with their own character and all with their own stories to tell, many of which are moving and painfully honest. Some people play more of a part than others but I remembered them all.
James Smythe has achieved quite a feat here. He has given us a clever thriller with a disturbing psychological edge. God, alien or terrorist – these are major concepts all tossed into the crowd and scrambled over as a voice, viewed as positive by some and negative by others, forces its way into our lives from nowhere. It’s a mix of thriller, scifi and horror and it will intrigue, sadden and horrify in equal measure. It will also make you think and that gives The Testimony that edge that will make this one of the thrillers of the year.