About three years ago, Teresa read Alis Hawkins’s Testament. Her enthusiastic review, along with Catherine’s recommendation over at Juxtabook, made me put this on my list, and you couldn’t do better than to read those reviews first. I have just a few extra thoughts to share, but they’ve said it well already.
Testament is a classic time-slip novel in form. One narrative is set in the 14th century, the other in the 21st, and the unifying strand is the fictional Kineton and Dacre college in Salster (here you have Oxsterbridge) — under construction in one time and under threat in the other. This kind of book can be very tricky to pull off. The major difficulty is maintaining interest: many authors make one narrative more interesting than the other, and it’s fatal to the pace of the book as the reader races through one part to get to the good bits. Hawkins manages to keep both strands of the narrative fresh and engaging, and she weaves themes such as birth and rebirth, redemption, and the definition of family through times more than 700 years apart.
In the medieval era, Hawkins creates political and religious drama (usually the same thing) with convincing tension. The master mason, Simon Kineton and his wife Gwyneth — a master carpenter in her own right — must face not only opposition from the church because of Richard Dacre’s Lollardy, but fear from their own workmen because of their son Toby’s severe illness, and of course they must also grieve their own idea of what their family was “meant” to be. In the modern era, Kineton and Dacre college — now called “Toby” college for reasons no one remembers — is under financial threat from a brash younger rival, and Damia Miller, the marketing manager, must work through academic-political machinations and pull together Toby supporters near and far in a bid to understand what the college’s identity really is.
Hawkins has made some inspired choices here. Damia’s being a marketing manager instead of an academic means that she learns about Toby’s history along with the reader, preventing the annoying phenomenon of information-dumping. The theme of children and the longing for them is treated seriously, but not heavily: the symbolism of art and architecture and the meaning of the college itself is the central focus of the book. The characterization is well done, and the two eras — so different from each other — are evoked very distinctly. Reactions are different, yet human nature is shown to be human in each time. This book is mysterious, refreshing, interesting, poignant. At one point I almost had to ask myself if Salster wasn’t real.
Of course, I ought to have known that if Teresa loved this book, I would too. And I did; it was terrific — serious and interesting and yet never heavy-handed. If this has been on your list as long as it’s been on mine (three years? four?) then bring it to the top. It makes perfect summer reading.