"Testament" by Alis Hawkins is the January selection of the Cornflower Book Club, an online book club (see link under sidebar). I joined this club because I quit my local book club, because this U.K.-based club features many British authors I am unfamiliar with and because last year's selections looked really interesting.
As a lover of historical novels, especially those set in Great Britain, I tore through the nearly-600 pages at a gallop after I got past the first chapter or two. At first I thought it was going to be a "brick and mortar" story like "Pillars of the Earth". Not that I disliked "Pillars", but once is enough.
The book travels alternately back and forth between medieval and present-day Salster, England. Although I know quite a few English cities, I had to research whether or not Salster actually exists. It does not, but one can envision a city like Oxford, which contains many colleges that together form a university.
Kineton and Dacre College is 600 years old when we first encounter it, in present times. A minor fire discloses eight previously hidden wall paintings (frescoes?) that are, to say the least, disturbing. It falls to new marketing director Damia Miller to discover the meaning behind the paintings and the history of the building of the college.
Although I am not bothered by books that jump around in time, I by far enjoyed the historical sections of "Testament" over the modern. They contain part political intrigue and part family drama, as wealthy merchant Richard Daker, master mason Simon of Kineton and - more reluctantly - Simon's wife, master carpenter Gwyneth, join forces to build an outstanding institution of higher education.
Just as the plans for the college are taking form in 1385, Gwyneth gives birth to a child she and Simon have desperately wanted for 20 years. Sadly, Simon and Gwyneth discover Toby is crippled and thought by townspeople to be possessed by the devil (from the description of his symptoms, Toby probably had cerebral palsy).
A side benefit of historical novels is that they are educational. I found it very illuminating to learn how colleges in the late 14th-Century were controlled by the Catholic church, that they were only for the chosen few and that all classes were conducted in Latin. Daker, a not-too-secret Lollard (followers of John Wycliffe, critical of the traditional church), believes that men should learn in their native language, that colleges should be open to the common man and not be controlled by the Church.
I found the story of Gwyneth's love for her damaged son to be heartwrenching and real. In contrast, the modern-day characters are much less empathetic.
At the turn of the 21st Century, Kineton and Dacre College, nicknamed Toby by fond students, is full of political intrigue too - in the form of university politics. There is a tenant's strike and a possible takeover by the smarmy leader of a fellow college. Those subplots either bored or mystified me and I skimmed through them - perhaps because I'm not English. Our colleges do not have tenant farmers and our universities are much more cohesive under their university umbrella.
I had the hardest time with Damia' character. I found it extremely difficult to believe that Ms. Miller, lacking a college degree, could suddenly become a marketing director of a major college and do a bang up job of it. I also found it a real stretch to believe that the only coach the school can find for their annual Fairings, the most-famous footrace in the world, is, you guessed it, Damia.
Since I am listing Damia's faults, I am also going to say it bothered me that she is a lesbian. Not that a lesbian protagonist in itself bother me - I say kudos to Hawkins, herself a lesbian, for having a lesbian (and black, to boot) character who is an intelligent, savvy career woman. But really, I see it as a contrivance and just so unnecessary. The side stories of Damia's present and past lovers - both male and female - were empty and bland. I felt no sympathy toward Damia's "plight", in vivid contrast to the way Hawkins made me feel about Gwyneth and Toby's situation.
Toby ends up being the hero of the story, ending up with not one but two statues of himself at Kineton and Dacre. How a crippled boy achieves this is a story that begs reading.