Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Macmillan New Writing focus

Alis Hawkins

I'm in danger of becoming the kind of reviewer I despise, singing the praises of my own coterie of Macmillan New Writers to the point where the reader despairs of any kind of objectivity. The risk of attracting adverse comment, however, is entirely worthwhile in if it allows me to draw your attention to Testament, the January MNW offering.

Yesterday I quoted with approval David Isaak's assessment of MNW novels as 'the teensiest bit outside the standard categories'. Testament is an interesting illustration of the view, all the more so because on the surface it doesn't seem to be true. The timeslip novel--two narratives, one historical and one contemporary--is very popular at the moment. Kate Mosse's two recent novels, Labyrinth and Sepulchre, are recent bestsellers in the genre.

No doubt MNW's marketers were delighted to have a novel to promote which occupies the territory as solidly as Testament. 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 is 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. And her portrait of Toby, the disabled child so disgusting to the 14th century world, 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 (after all, I want women to read The Dog of the North, even though fantasy is a traditionally masculine genre). "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.

1 comment:

Alis said...

Tim, thank you SO MUCH - I am absolutely delighted that you liked Testament so much and thanks for taking the time to write this wonderful review. You are a star!