|All fall and spring of the previous year they lived with exclusive reference to each other, and were viewed as an unspoken duo by everyone else. Little remarked, universally felt, this taut, even dangerous energy running between them."|
Trust Exercise: A coming-of-age tale of a volatile relationship, made more electric by a charismatic drama teacher. Then a shift in time and narrator throws everything into question. A brilliantly constructed story of the weaknesses of memory. B+
"Trust Exercise" is the winner of the 2019 National Book Award for Fiction. It starts as a straightforward coming-of-age tale set in a high school for the performing arts in an unnamed southern city. Sarah and David have an electrifying bond between them. They are a pair who throw off sparks whether they are alternately drawn together or repelling each other like magnets.
The trust exercises of the title are the techniques used by their charismatic drama teacher to teach them how to access their deepest emotions in order to show them on stage. That these kids might not be mature enough to handle it doesn't deter the teacher.
Complications set in as Sarah and David's story gets entangled with others. Sarah's best friend is Joelle, until she isn't. Sarah's classmate Karen gives Sarah rides but isn't really a friend. They are thrown together at the least propitious time. Most importantly, there are the adults. The drama teacher is Mr. Kingsley, who seems to be way too interested in his students' private lives. Then there are the foreign students from England and their two adult chaperones, Martin and Liam, both of whom behave more like teenagers than the adult chaperones they supposedly are. Only halfway through the novel, the story reaches a climax with an out-of-control party at a teacher's house.
Then, it's twelve years later. With a shift in narrator, we begin an examination of the reliability of memory. The reader begins to question everything that's come before. The new narrator is Karen. Karen runs into Sarah. We get to see many of the same incidents as before but through Karen's memory. Karen's version of the story reaches a climax at the premiere of a stage play being directed by David. Sarah is there. So is Mr. Kingsley and Martin. Who remembers what? Which story is true? Any?
A short third section of the novel introduces yet a third narrator, whose own attempt to reconstruct the past forces the reader to question not only Sarah's version of the story, but Karen's as well. What's true and what's false memory? Given that the story involves teenagers whose hormones and rationality are maturing, leaving their "emotion packed like gunpowder into the barrel," is it any wonder that the reader doesn't get a firm answer? Susan Choi's novel brilliantly deconstructs the novel and rebuilds it as, well, a trust exercise between the author and reader.
"Trust Exercise" is available in hardcover and eBook formats from the Richardson Public Library.