Testament by Alis Hawkins is sensationally good from start to finish. Hawkins has taken the popular spiral narrative split across eras approach but everything that she has done with it is new and fresh. The result manages to be both a cozily satisfying page turner and breath takingly ambitious.
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. Pity the book I review after this ...
If you review Testament I would love to read it, please let me know and I will add a link here.
The picture of Ely's lantern roof is from this blog.