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Book Review: Testament by Kim Sherwood

Kim Sherwood’s Testament won the 2016 Bath Novel Award and is one of the four books shortlisted for this year’s Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award which is announced on Thursday.

Of everyone in her complicated family, Eva was closest to her grandfather: a charismatic painter – and a keeper of secrets. So when he dies, she’s hit by a greater loss – of the questions he never answered, and the past he never shared.

It’s then she finds the letter from the Jewish Museum in Berlin. They have uncovered the testimony he gave after his forced labour service in Hungary, which took him to the death camps and then to England as a refugee. This is how he survived.

But there is a deeper story that Eva will unravel – of how her grandfather learnt to live afterwards. As she confronts the lies that have haunted her family, their identity shifts and her own takes shape. The testament is in her hands.

Although I’d seen and heard plenty of good things about Kim Sherwood’s debut novel, Testament, ever since it won the Bath Novel Award in 2016 and then again upon hardback publication in July 2018, I only read it after it was shortlisted for the Sunday Times / University of Warwick Young Writer of the Year Award.

I can’t help thinking that it was the exactly right time to read it though, despite the delay, because I happened to read Testament shortly before meeting up with a Hungarian friend of mine. Telling him the premise behind the book led to him letting me into his own family’s secret history while we pored over the most wonderful collection of old photographs together. And I’m not sure we would have shared that, if Testament hadn’t unlocked a discussion about family secrets and unearthing documents holding the key to those, only after a close relative’s death.

In Testament, video producer Eva, decides to continue her work on the documentary she was making about her beloved grandfather, after his death. It leads her to a discovery which sheds light on a time in his life that he had always refused to discuss with her, or indeed any other family member. In fact, he almost seems to have wiped it from his history altogether by taking on an anglicised name upon his arrival in England and going on to become the renowned painter, Joseph Silk, who worked in his Blue Room studio in the house they shared until his recent death.

Eva’s voyage into her grandfather’s previously hidden past also forces her out of the comfort of the house in St John’s Wood where she’s effectively been camped out, postponing making any of her own life decisions. Her search for answers will see her travel to Berlin and Budapest, as she tries to slot together the missing pieces of their family’s history and decide whether or not to make any of it public and share it, in accordance with what she believes her own grandfather would have wanted. Along the way, she’ll be forced to decide what it is she wants for her own life and which direction that lies.

Eva’s present-day quest is interspersed with her grandfather’s own account as a young man abruptly separated from family and friends and subsequently moved around. The juxtaposition of the documents, exhibits and memorials that Eva sees and how they either are or might be exhibited in the present day, together with what Joseph experiences and witnesses first-hand make for a truly moving and emotional family story of separation and loss.

Kim Sherwood tells this stunning survivor’s story with great compassion and skill. Testament shows us how life sometimes demands we undergo a transformation before we can return to any semblance of family or home life. It’s an extraordinarily bold take on one man’s Testament to what it sometimes involves to continue and endure.

Testament by Kim Sherwood is published by riverrun, an imprint of Quercus Publishing. It is available as an audiobook, ebook, in hardback and as a paperback. You can find it at Amazon UK or buy it from Hive instead, where every purchase helps support your local independent bookshop. You can find the author on Twitter

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