REVIEW: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi

In brief: A story in three parts about a group of teenagers at a high school focusing on theatre. What is true? What has been omitted? And what are straight out lies?

The good: Brilliant writing evokes great images.

The not-so-good: The second part had me confused in places.

Why I chose it: It won awards. It sounded great. Thanks Allen & Unwin for the copy.

Year: 2019

Pages: 257 (AU RRP $29.99)

Publisher: Serpent’s Tail (Allen & Unwin)

Setting: An unnamed city in America

Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Trust Exercise is technically brilliant. It’s also ambitious, telling a story and then reflecting on it from a different perspective. What wasn’t true from that first story? What was left out? It delivers beautifully on the technical side with gorgeous turns of phrase and it evokes the intensity of being a teenager where everything hits hard. As for the plot, trying to work out the connections between the three ‘trust exercises’ and discover what is true and what isn’t is a head spin that doesn’t really have one answer. The moral of the story is that each of us tells our own version of the truth, marginalising some events and characters and changing reality to fit our own narrative. There is no one truth. I think you need to accept that as a reader to enjoy the book. As the days pass since I finished the book, I’m thinking that this book is cleverer and cleverer but I still don’t have my own version of the truth.

The book is told in three sections. The first is from the point of view of teenager Sarah, a student at a special high school for the performing arts. She feels insecure amongst the other students, with an intense relationship with the wealthy David and friendship with Joelle (Who Has A Car – very important) falling away. She does things she regrets but is driven initially to be the favourite of their drama teacher, Mr Kingsley. She is one of the students who is anointed with special lunchtime chats with him, until she is cast aside and humiliated by being forced to work with David amongst the class. It never goes anywhere, and Mr Kingsley seems frustrated that the pair will not work out their differences on stage. Then an English stage group arrives and their play is cancelled after one night. It doesn’t stop them from hanging around this anonymous town in America and the students and teachers to get entangled in relationships, which end messily with a party at Mr Kingsley’s house. The narrative moves to ‘Karen’, who reunites Sarah as an adult. Sarah is now an author, and her novel is thinly veined version of what happened at school. But to Karen’s chagrin, she’s left a lot out, including Karen. Karen then reflects on her own time at the school, telling the story quite differently to Sarah in places and culminating in a trip to the UK in which Karen returns home changed. In the current day, Karen and David are friends with the UK teacher Martin returning to the US to put on a play. Karen is no longer an actor, but she wants to work with Martin for her own reasons. The third and final section is about Claire, looking for her birth mother. She asks at a school about her, but is asked to take the conversation off campus where things with Mr Lord turn revolting.

These stories seem to be interconnected, but how is up to the reader to decide. Who is telling the truth? Who is Mr Kingsley really? What did Sarah and Karen leave out? Is Claire the only one with the distance to tell the truth? A fiction novel about what is fiction and what isn’t- experimental and quite a wild ride as the reader is tossed about between characters. Despite the relative slenderness of this novel, I found Trust Exercise to be quite a slow read because I needed to read all the detail once Sarah had (maybe) let me down with the truth. The setting is also so intensely crafted with teenage heat and the intense humidity of the setting that you can’t help but slow down. Some of the things I read were grotesque. Some were heartbreaking by their deletion from the truth. Some were plain sad and others uplifting. Am I glad I read it? Yes. But this is the kind of book you take your time with and let yourself go with Susan Choi’s flow.

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