The Test by Sylvain Neuvel

Publisher – Tor

Published – Out Now

Price - £2.63 kindle eBook

Britain, the not too-distant future, Idir is sitting the British Citizenship test. He wants his family to belong.

Twenty-five questions to determine their fate. Twenty-five chances to impress. When the test takes an unexpected and tragic turn, Idir is handed the power of life and death.

How do you value a life when all you have is multiple choice?

Every few years in the UK we will see a news story on our citizenship test. The government sets a series of questions about the UK that immigrants seeking a UK citizenship must pass. The test is weird – questions about the government works are mixed in with random historical facts. Knowing when the Magna Carta was written as we know is essential to be a fully functioning part of our community. Arguably we are showing here how our government itself sees the country and what we think a person must be to be one of us.  Often in news stories many UK citizens are asked the same questions and fail miserably. The standards for those wishing to move seem high than those who want to be here. In Sylvain Neuvel’s sharp and tense novella an advanced form of the test is shown that really makes the reader question their own beliefs making it one of the most unsettling reads this year.

Idir has fled Tehran with his wife and young son. He’s a kind man who just wants to settle in the UK and continue being a dentist. Today is the UK citizenship test – a paper exercise where he must pass, or the family will be instantly deported. He’s studied hard and his family are awaiting him in the lobby. He’s nervous but prepared…ad then there are gunshots. Angry men storm the building and hold the occupant’s hostage. The leader gets annoyed at Idir aiding the injured and decides he shall posit a test of his own. Life and death decisions with huge consequences for Idir unfold.

As you might expect this story isn’t quite what it seems, and I can’t tell you much more than that for the plot. This is very much a story about what we expect immigrants to do and behave. The leader of the gang provides the visceral choices and each choice leads to further ones for Idir. The brilliance of the story is that while we easily are on Idir’s side to make the right choices and live. But our own value system as to what the right choice is being very clearly shown up and when you realise that imbalance its gut punch. Are we the reader judging him by our morality or the higher standards we set those who want to live in our country? Putting the reader directly into this situation and seeing the impacts this places on Idir and his family is a sobering experience we are not spectators we are complicit.

This is an extremely harrowing but thoughtful novella with a very clear message. We can easily see the signs of escalation in how we treat those from other countries and the desire for them to be ‘good people’. I think this is a very skilfully written story with a sharp bite that may make readers uncomfortable but also help them further question exactly how and why these artificial standards get set so high and put us in the position of having to adhere to them.  It will be on your minds days after reading…