James Smythe got himself on my radar because over on The Guardian’s website, he is re-reading and discussing all of Stephen King’s work, in chronological published order. If you’re a Constant Reader, then you could do a lot worse than getting yourself over to the website and having a read through his stuff. And if you are a fan of oral histories, tense thrillers or dystopian novels, you should also read his debut novel The Testimony.
I confess, the prime reason I bought this was it was, for a brief spell, available for free on Kindle. I’m a fan of oral histories, something which was intensified by reading World War Z earlier in the year. The main difference in terms of structure is Brooks drove it relentlessly forward, not touching on the same character (except the interviewer) more than once, Smythe’s novel cuts back and forth between twenty six people whose lives were in various ways affected by The Broadcast. They range from White House chief of staff to retirees in NYC to unemployed people in Russia. Smythe covers a lot of global territory and has one heck of a cross section.
So, The Broadcast. One day, out of nowhere, almost everyone hears deafening static. Over the following few days, there are three more Broadcasts, the sum total of the words spoken is “my children, do not be afraid. Goodbye”. And that is it. Scientists struggle to explain it, the religious claim it’s the voice of God, those who didn’t hear it can’t understand why and civilisation slowly begins to unravel itself. Terrorists begin to explode bombs, people start dying for no reason, life pretty much goes batshit crazy in the wake of The Broadcast. The characters tell their stories, which neatly fill in the bigger picture too.
I say neatly, but there is nothing neat about Smythe’s vision of the near future (we’re a couple of terms after Obama). It’s big and it’s messy and it’s actually quite brilliant. I could not put this book down, I really cared about the characters and there’s some great subtle work on Smythe’s part with the UK politician and his eventual fate. The quote on the cover is one I wholly agree with. This book is a bravura debut, it’s smart, it’s terrifying, it’ll keep you up at night in a race to finish it. And then you probably won’t be able to sleep.