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Testament (Macmillan New Writing) Hardcover – 18 Jan 2008
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'A magnificent novel with broad appeal.' -- Buckingham Examiner
'An embitious first novel by Hawkins, which skillfully bridges two vastly different time periods...'
-- Peterborough Evening Telegraph
'Testament is an elaborate double narrative, zig-zagging between the 14th century and the present day...'
-- Mail on Sunday
'This fine novel works on many levels. Hawkins's writing is certainly in their league.' -- Church Times
What would you sacrifice to carve your name in history?See all Product description
Top customer reviews
As one earlier reviewer pointed out, if there is a problem with novels spanning past/present, it is that the reader engages with one era more than the other. Alis Hawkins has done such a brilliant job bringing to life the cathedral city of Salster in the late 14th century ... and you really do feel as if you could go there, buy a guide book, make a tour of Kineton and Dacre College and stand reverently in front of its two Toby statues. But unfortunately her present day characters, by contrast, seem mediocre stereotypes. (Why make Damia, the central character of the modern strand, a lesbian ... surely an unnecessary Guardian wimminish complication, and I couldn't have cared less about her tangled lovelife with an artist in New York.)
At 550 pages, the book is easily 200 pages too long and could have used more stringent editing. Much of the modern story could have been lost.
But the historical story is masterly. You feel as if you know Simon of Kineton, the master mason who cannot accept his handicapped son, and his wife Gwyneth. You can smell the streets and feel the burgeoning rebellion against a church that has a monopoly on learning and the word of God. The story of handicapped Toby is heartbreaking; an excruciating insight into a world that saw physical disability as demonic possession.
A startlingly good debut novel, despite my reservations; and a writer to look out for in future - especially if she can wean herself away from modern banalities.
Structurally "Testament" appears squarely in this tradition. One narrative is set in the 14th century, the other the 21st, and the unifying feature is Kineton and Dacre College, under construction in the first strand, and under threat in the second. So far, this seems a genre staple. What makes the book unusual is the stories Hawkins chooses to tell in each strand. The plot of the historical section is centred around a master mason's struggle to build an architecturally-revolutionary new college; the contemporary narrative centres on that college's efforts to resist takeover by a brash younger rival. We are not in 'arcane secrets passed down the centuries' here, which makes a refreshing change.
Given the rather unusual nature of the plot, I won't give too much away. Birth and rebirth are major themes of the novel; both for the college itself, and for the main female characters in each narrative. Hawkins is as comfortable with the political machinations--medieval and current--as she is with the emotional dramas of the characters' lives. Central to both plots is the life of Toby, a disabled child in the 14th century world. Hawkins' portrayal of his life, scorned and feared by his contemporaries, is a melancholy and moving one which stays in the mind after the covers are closed.
The danger all writers of timeslips face is the risk that the reader will find one narrative strand more interesting than the other, fatally unbalancing their reading experience. "Testament" is the most successful timeslip novel I've read in terms of keeping the present-day narrative as fresh and absorbing as the historical one. It's a difficult technical act to pull off, and almost invisible when it succeeds--so it's worth drawing attention to here. Hawkins is hugely gifted in the creation of character, and her lead females in both stories are so powerfully rendered that the reader is fully anchored in their world, not left waiting for the next change of scene.
"Testament" will, I suspect, be marketed as a "woman's book". Pigeonholing books by gender is never very helpful: "women's fiction", in particular, has pejorative undertones, suggesting either frothy vapidity or issue-driven sentimentality; and in any event, the book really does have much broader appeal. Yes, the the central characters are female, and both stories turn on women's yearning for children and the unexpected consequences of those yearnings; but Hawkins is a profoundly humane writer. Her eloquent message of tolerance, and the importance of liberal values, is articulated in prose of crisp purity and emotional power: all readers of discrimination--even men--will enjoy it.
The historical vein is set in the late middle ages and deals with the conception, gestation and birth of two very different Tobys. The first is a much longed for child of a middle aged couple. Simon and Gwyneth, both Master craftsmen, have being trying for a child for years and in the meantime they have acquired two adopted children Alyson the embroiderer and Henry, now also a Master Mason. After twenty years Simon and Gwyneth almost give up hope, then they are blessed with a baby, Toby. Toby's arrival does not fit the expectations they have of a child and they spend the first part of his childhood trying to come to terms with these changes and with each other's reactions. This portrait of a marriage is always subtle: there are no headline manoeuvres, no victim, no villain, just two people trying to adjust.
The second Toby is the college. Another luminous off-the-page creation, subtle and light, is the fictional third ancient English university town of Salster. In this parallel world we have Oxterbridge: Oxford, Salster and Cambridge. The life of the modern town is dominated by the Lollard endowed college Kineton and Dacre, known as "Toby" for reasons lost in the mists of time, time of course which we have access to via the spiral narrative. This college was designed and built by Simon and Gwyneth Kineton working for the Lollard merchant Richard Dacre. Both the medieval version of this town and its modern equivalent are rich in detail without being weighted with facts trying to create an actuality. There is no sense of 'trying' about the writing; we read and the town of Salster just is.
The medieval scenes are beautifully worked with the complexities of personality, church, politics and stone stitched with silken precision. The modern scenes utilise a range of narrative strategies including email, something with works with the plot and is not just a quirky add-on. In the present day we follow the potentially tragic Damia Miller, and orphan from a traveller family now grown up and finding out how to truly settle down for the first time in her life. Having worked with homelessness charities she has her first conventional job promoting Kineton and Dacre. No longer so rich, "Toby" college needs money and support as it fights merger with the upstart Northgate College and its cynical principle Iain Baird, a delightfully villainous player. A fire reveals a mysterious medieval wall painting and it is the exploration of this painting's artistic and historical origins that brings together the medieval and the present day.
Testament's great successes is that it pulls off the double trick of creating one fictional city, utterly convincingly, in two different eras about 700 years apart. I can't believe that I can't have a day trip to Salster to see where the novel is set. But despite the serious ambition of the novel's scope Alis Hawkins is not afraid to play, and the seriousness of the lives of the medieval characters are balanced by a cast of minor characters in the modern era that remind me of E M Forster's description of minor character in Jane Austen, echoing the nature of Mrs Bertram who is essentially a flat, wryly observed, caricature but who can be "popped" up to three dimensions for a moment in the psychological sun.
The ending is almost literally heavenly as the complex characters, out of time and playing in your head, are kept in another place that preserves humanity in the widest sense: a sort of universal memory. It is like It's a Wonderful Life: we see how lives are always bigger than they seem and have lasting effects.
Testament is a truly fabulous novel. It is like nothing else that I have read recently and is fresh and unpredictable, tackling some brave and unexpected subject matter with real taste and feeling, while just being oh-so-mysterious and characterful and readable. Like the lantern roof on which Gwyneth works it is intricate and should feel heavy but the end result is lacy and filled with light, light, light. I don't know why I am not seeing more reviews of Testament in the blogosphere. It is not just my book of the year so far but is also in my top ten books of the last ten years.