“The world is me and not me,” Karen says near the end, recalling the lesson of therapy, one she’s found “difficult to learn”. It’s the lesson failed by the abuser of power, the lesson the novel at its richest takes it on itself to parse. Choi does so with consummate wit, punchiness and feeling, and in the process shows how much we need our female novelists within the sea change of our current moment.
To read the first hundred-odd pages is to find yourself in a vividly depicted, but ultimately fairly straightforward tale of teenage turbulence... Choi’s prose is damp with tears and sweat, bruised with hurt and lust, sprinkled with sugar, salt and e-numbers. Hormones practically drip off the page... Then, suddenly and without warning, Choi executes a bravura bait-and-switch, after which everything changes. The entire structure of the novel folds in on itself like a piece of origami, and what emerges is something sharp-edged and prickly: a narrative propelled by white-hot rage and the desire for revenge... To employ Trust Exercise as a #MeToo novel would be to do this challenging, mercurial work a disservice. Although it resonates with the contemporary moment, its genesis clearly lies in Choi’s back catalogue.
Choi writes about teenage obsession well, capturing the mayfly life span of young friendships and alliances. She successfully exhorts the reader to remember the expansiveness of adolescence, in which a year can be crushed into a morning and emotion is “packed like gunpowder into the barrel”... Yet the book is hard to fall for. It wants to mess with your expectations, to whip the rug from under your feet. Some readers will find its forays into metafiction tedious or navel-gazing; I did. This is a novel about trust: the testing of it, the straining of it, the blowback that can ensue when trust is severed. Nothing, Choi indicates somewhat laboriously, should be taken at face value, least of all the fevered stories we tell ourselves about our teenage years.
It’s the Eighties and teenagers David and Sarah are students in love (and lust) at a prestigious U.S. performing arts school.
It’s an already febrile atmosphere, dense with a dangerous emotional intensity that Choi expertly conveys...
The second act, which takes places 20 years later, shifts the spotlight and calls into question all that has gone before.
If that sounds annoying, it isn’t — Choi might be tricksy, but she’s also deadly serious in her pursuit of timely, MeToo-era themes including the misuse of power and the effects of abuse. Taut, distinctive and deeply unsettling.