16 November 2019

#Review - Testament by Kim Sherwood #YoungWriterAwardShadow

Cover design by Andrew Smith
Kim Sherwood
riverrun, 12 July 2018
PB, 455pp

This is my second (of four) reviews as part of shadow judging the The Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award. I am part of the Shadow Panel which will make its own choice from the shortlist for the award.

The four shortlisted books are Stubborn Archivist by Yara Rodrigues Fowler (Fleet/ Little, Brown), Testament by Kim Sherwood (riverrun), The Perseverance by Raymond Antrobus (Penned in the Margins) and salt slow by Julia Armfield (Picador).

About the Author

Kim Sherwood was born in Camden in 1989 and lives in Bath. She studied Creative Writing at UEA and is now Senior Lecturer at the University of the West of England. Her pieces have appeared in Mslexia, Lighthouse, and Going Down Swinging. Kim began researching and writing Testament, her first novel, after her grandfather, the actor George Baker, passed away and her grandmother began to talk about her experiences as a Holocaust Survivor for the first time. It won the 2016 Bath Novel Award, was longlisted for the 2019 Desmond Elliot Prize and shortlisted for the 2019 Author’s Club Best First Novel Award.

About the Book

'The letter was in the Blue Room - her grandfather’s painting studio, where Eva spent the happier days of her childhood. After his death, she is the one responsible for his legacy - a legacy threatened by the letter she finds. It is from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They have found the testimony her grandfather gave after surviving the labour camps in Austria. And, since he was one of Britain’s greatest twentieth century artists, they want to exhibit it. But Joseph Silk - leaving behind József Zyyad - remade himself long ago. As Eva begins to uncover the truth, she understands the trauma, and the lies, that have haunted her family. She will unravel what happened to József and his brother, who came to England as refugees. One never spoke of his past - the other couldn’t let it go. Their story - and that of the woman they both loved - is in her hands. Revealing it would change her grandfather’s hard- won identity. But it could also change the tide of history. This testament can lend words to wordless grief, and teach her how to live."

My review

Testament is one of those books which begins with a story that seems small, personal and intimate and then, almost without you realising, blossoms, expands and acquires wider resonance, deeper relevance and added meaning. While still remaining, in a sense, small, personal and intimate.

Eva is devoted to her elderly grandfather, artist Joseph Silk (Jószef Zyyad to some), who, as a young man, survived the horrors of wartime Hungary. As a Jew, he was enslaved, tortured, marched from camp to camp in the dying days of the war and lost his parents and sister, afterwards making a life for himself in England. Silk's (as he is generally referred to) choice was then to turn his back on the past, on the family he lost, the country that is no longer his own, the house he grew up in, everything from before. he certainly never wanted to tale part in reunions, contribute his testimony to museums, or to explore what was lost.

Granddaughter Eva, close to Silk and feeling herself rejected by her father John, is keen to protect Silk's legacy and reputation but most of all perhaps, his privacy. Approached by curators, journalists and art historians who want something of this eminent figure, this eminent survivor, she asks herself what Silk would want - and then closes down, even as she's dealing with the sale of his house and studio and the need to decide what should happen to everything, to decide how Silk should be marked in the world (even the text for a gravestone is impossible to settle). Inevitably that can't, in the end, hold, and Eva embarks reluctantly on a search for the truth, her easy trust in and love for Silk eroded by the discovery that he told her lies, lies, lies.

This is then a story about survival. While we are shown episodes from the Holocaust - those affecting Jószef, his brother László, and a young woman Zuzka - and these are very grim, the story is necessarily  selective there (I don't think what we told is by any means the worst that happened) and really focusses, I think, on what happened after, when the three young survivors are brought to England, to the Lake District of all places. We see, slowly, the dilemma they face.

The need for safety and security. The alienness of this damp land, a country of grey streets and chilly attics. The ambivalence of the English who haven't suffered as Jószef, László and Zuzka have but who are the victors, the owners, in their own country, of the war, as it were. (And among whom there is still prejudice - anti Jewish, anti foreigner).

But also, rejection by a Hungary that joined in the Nazi purges and doesn't want them now, offers nothing, no family, no restored home, no life. (In the modern parts of this book, that's paralleled by the scary resurge in Hungary of the far Right with its attempts to airbrush history).

The three survivors find, in the end, different responses to this dilemma. I'm not going to say any more about what they are because Eva's discovery of all this is an important part of the story, for her and for her father - but none of them come without cost. And we see that while John. and Eva may be second and third generation survivors, they are still survivors and the ripples of what happened to a father and a grandfather spread out to affect subsequent generations.

It's a cleverly written book, balancing an account of what happened in the 1940s and after - which, we need to keep remembering, can't be known to Eva because she hasn't been told things, she's been lied to, the witnesses are dead - with one set in the present day, taking in Eva's mourning silk, her doubts about herself and her father, her excitement at discovering Berlin and Budapest and in them, a couple of young men. Despite the aspects of the book that expose suffering and death, there is a great sense of life in Testament, not only in the modern parts but in the lives of the young refugees in Ambleside or the Jewish community in London (on the cusp of moving from the East End to North London).

Testament is a book that beautifully masters what it is trying to say, shows what has been and what the consequences can be. I loved the characters in this book, their flaws and their struggles, and felt that it truly honoured those who suffered and those who inherited aspects of that suffering.

It's also a book which has, because it must have, warnings for us, warning not to forget, warnings to be on guard, to keep watch.

For more information about the book, see the publisher's website here

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