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Testimonies Paperback – 9 May 1995
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A novel first published in 1952 as THREE BEAR WITNESS which, set in Wales, tells a tale of love and death centred around an Oxford don who leaves for a Welsh farm and for the wife of a neighbouring farmer. From the author of the AUBREY/NATURIN novels.
From the Back Cover
'Testimonies', Patrick O'Brian's first novel, was written almost twenty years before the first of his famous Aubrey/Maturin series and is now available for the first time in paperback.
“Patrick O'Brian's 'Testimonies' makes one think of a great ballad or Biblical story…In O'Brian, as in Yeats, the most studied literary cultivation and knowledge bring into being works which read as if they were prior to literature and conscious literary technique.”
“The harmony between setting, character, narrative and method achieves an extraordinary power and intensity of emotion without ever betraying the slightest sign of effort. It is a story that does not so much speak as sing, with haunting purity of the ancient rhapsode or the bard, yet in a voice as modern and direct as today's newspaper.”
GODFREY HODGSON, 'Independent'
“O'Brian has a power of bringing near to the reader…savagery and tenderness, beauty and mystery and boldness and dignity… He's perceptive and skilled, but best of all he writes with passion.”
“The perfection of its prose… the characters' attitudes and motives, the delicate complexities of feeling, and the lyrical evocation of place make this book remarkable… 'Testimonies' is a perfect tragedy.”
JESSICA MANN, 'Sunday Telegraph'
“Wonderfully portrayed… the uncompromising detail of the scenery, the small, revealing exchanges of social life and the persuasive development of character are those of a master-novelist working.”
PHILIPPA GREGORY, 'Sunday Times'
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This is not the sort of thing I would normally read and I only came across it because of my love of O'Brien's Aubrey/Maturin series which were written much later in his career.
Firstly, the book is beautifully written, and on a superficial level is very easy to read. The description of the landscapes and people of the North Wales valleys seems entirely authentic: the harsh living conditions, overbearing propriety and the amazing deference of the people looks almost prehistoric when viewed from a modern perspective.
The story itself is almost unbearably tragic and from the very first pages the author conveys an impending sense of doom which is eventually realised in a single shocking and unexpected paragraph just before the end. Throughout the book, desperate and dark events are hinted at or sketched in with none of the unpleasant and graphic detail we are all too familiar with today. However, like the monster in a horror film which you never quite see, their unseen presence is all the more disturbing.
The format of the book, with chapters written by alternating characters, sometimes in the presence of an unidentified and mysterious interrogator is effective and unsettling. There are some long passages, for example the description of illegal fishing in the lake which seem largely irrelevant to the story, apart from emphasising the loneliness of the main character; nonetheless the writing is wonderful and these passages are very rewarding.
I have no doubt that in some ways I have missed the point of the book but I am very glad I read it. It is unique in my experience, very disturbing and unsettling whilst being very easy to read.
I would strongly recommend it to anyone who would like something very different but deeply rewarding and mysterious.
I'm no literature expert, and I enjoyed this book; but I felt that his characterisation of the landscape was rather better than of the people - I wonder if that was why he chose the historical novel format for his later work.
Anyway, if you are an O'Brian fan, or know someone who is, this is worth buying.
The writer: Patrick O'Brian is author of the wonderful Aubrey/Maturin series of historical novels; he has also written biographies of Picasso and Sir Joseph Banks. He translated many books from the French, including Papillon and the works of Simone de Beauvoir.
My opinion - a strange book, unlike anything else I have ever read. It is subtle, multi-layered, and beautifully written. The story is somehow not the main thing, but the atmosphere is - O'Brian gets the cadences of talk just right, people's souls, too. The poor hill farms, the back-breaking work, the thin line between farming and starving; the village gossip; personalities, landscape, feelings.
He conveys the personalities and the uncertainties of the personalities very well, and the shifting of the personalities according to the subject. The book is built up, as is the tension, by a series of chapters with three people's testimonies; as we get to know them better, they shift under our reading, and I certainly shifted between liking and disliking the main person, Mr Pugh. Sometimes I thought he was a tiresome prig, sometimes an honest-to-the-bone likeable sensitive person; until the story took over, and my likes were neither here nor there. The slow build-up immersed me, and then the story became ominous and dark, very real, and infinitely sad... an exceptional writer.
It is only a 'puzzling book' if you are the kind of blinkered reader that can only find satisfaction in something if it falls neatly into an established genre - i.e. a person who can only appreciate new material in the light of old material.
O'Brian, writing as he does using his own feelings and experience as reference points (rather than a self-conscious guess as to what is or is not genre-typical or acceptable), has written a story with a truly feminine subtlety to it.
The LEAST interesting thing about this novel is its narrative structure; to even talk of such things is to have utterly missed the boat here. Like saying that Shakespeare had used a 'very clever ploy' in writing rhyming couplet. To praise structure over content is rather like esteeming marriage over love.
This is a poignant story about a man who finds love unexpectedly in an insensitive world. It is unlikely to be similar to anything you have read before.