Testament (Macmillan New Writing) Paperback – 2 Jan 2009
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"An elaborate double narrative, zig-zagging between the fourteenth century and the present day." "Mail on Sunday""
"An ambitious first novel . . . skillfully bridges two vastly different time periods." "Peterborough Evening Telegraph""
What would you sacrifice to carve your name in history?See all Product description
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The story moved backwards and forwards between the 14th century and the 21st. This is an interesting device, but I kept getting involved in one story, then having to return to the other and then go back again, and it was sometimes a little difficult to pick up the thread again.
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.
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