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Thank you for the choice of TESTAMENT for this month's CBG reading. Historical novels fascinate me as, when well done, they give such intriguing glimpses into past times and although I worried that the 21st century strand was going to be a bit heavily laced with "issues", the narrative flowed convincingly with credible and interesting characters. I am interested in learning more about the Lollards and would be very interested to know more about whether women such as Gwyneth could achieve the rank and respect of a master craftsman in the 14th century. I can see this page turning novel being optioned for a movie; now that would be a scheme!


I will post later as I'm going out just now but what a fantastic read full of issues regarding manipulation, discrimination, disability, and why we love those we love and our expectations of those people and that love.
Great stuff.
Loved the historical/modern day stories running along side each other.
Back later, bye for now.

Susie Vereker

Despite the fact it took flak originally because it pays no advance, the Macmillan New Writing scheme has had some interesting successes. I was impressed both by the thoroughness of Alis Hawkins’s research and the quality of her writing. However, these days if there isn’t a pacy plot, I like to have some emotional involvement with the characters and so far I haven’t been able to engage with them, perhaps because of all the to-ing and fro-ing in time - I don’t yet empathise with Damia, model of diversity though she is. Admittedly, due to the wrong kind of snow, the book was delivered late and I’m only on page 100 or so. I’m not the best reader to comment anyway as I don’t normally like time-slip or campus/impoverished-college plots, so I’d better wait until I’ve finished the book. I’ll probably put it aside now for a long summer holiday. Perhaps, having just finished one hefty serious dense historical novel, I’m not in the mood for another long read. Judging by other reviews, particularly the one by Juxtabook and your own, it sounds as it if will be rewarding once I have time to give it justice.


Thank you for this choice of book from which I learned about a time in our history that proved to be as interesting as it had been previously unknown. The control of the church in education, the attitude to disability, the Lollards and the craft system were all woven into a story which I found absorbing.

When a story has two threads, I suffer from a tendency to befriend one of them more than the other and this was the case here. So I tended to hurry over Damia & her problems in order to get back to the past! I think that I would have liked the modern thread better if it had revealed more of the secrets of the past as it evolved - rather in the way that this device is used in 'Possession'.

A measure of my enjoyment level is whether I give a book to my friends to read and in this case, I certainly will.


I look forward to time slip novels and seemed to have read quite a few recently. Often there is a tendency to concentrate on one section of time but I did not find this happened with "Testament". At first I found there were too many issues to take on board,although as it is a long book, I felt I had time to read them through. I was much more interested in Gwyneth and her status as master craftman. Is this not very unusual for those times?
Karen I'm so glad you mentioned about Toby's fate pushing credibilty,I felt the same. There were parts of the politics of the present day university I found a bit longwinded. Could there have been more editing of the book?
I thought the use of emails for modern day a good device. I enjoyed "Testament"and will look out for the next book by this author.


I'm so glad I decided to join in on reading this book. I love the idea of a time slip novel, but they almost always disappoint me. This was a pleasant surprise. I thought both strands were equally well done.

Unlike others, I liked the present-day storyline slightly more than the past one. I loved the use of e-mails and blog posts, and I thought it was clever to make Damia something other than a historical researcher. I've read so many time slip novels where the researcher seems too dim about the area being researched. I'm sure that's because the author feels a need to explain historical elements to readers, and so has the researcher puzzle things out that shouldn't be a puzzle at all. It makes me crazy! But Hawkins never once fell into that trap. Yeah, there may have been an overreliance on coincidence, now that I think about it, but as I was reading I bought it, which is good enough for me.

The only flaws I found were in the historical section. I just wasn't convinced that a woman could have been a master carpenter in those days. If it was possible (because there are some anecdotal stories of women having unexpected careers in that era), I can't believe no one would have remarked on it. It just rang false to me. And I do have some minor quibbles with the depiction of the Lollards, but as a masters student in theology, I'm a tough customer on that score. As far as I can tell (not having studied the Lollards with any depth), Hawkins gets the general idea right, and to be fair, the ideas that I don't think were quite accurate(regarding original sin) were those of Simon, who was not a scholar or member of the clergy.

On Toby's fate, his actual fate did strain credulity a bit, but in the moment I bought it. Regarding how he was thought of after, I chalked that up to sentimental and influential parents.

Mary McCartney

I enjoyed this book very much but found myself hurrying over the present day story to return to the past. I found that section of the novel much more engaging and compelling - I just felt slightly impatient with Damia and the other modern characters. I enjoyed the description of the building process in the mediaeval story although I must say I found the creation of Salster with its rituals and customs a bit artifical. And, to lower the tone slightly, the term Oxsterbridge made me giggle; an oxter is an armpit in Northern Ireland! I was fascinated by the depiction of the political climate in Simon and Gwyneth's time. All-in-all, although the book has its flaws its virtues outweighed its faults.


I found this a very enjoyable read but not my usual read as I tend to favour the classics. I found that although it was a longish book the short chapters and the time slip format meant that it progressed well and was good for putting down and picking up again.
I did however find a few things didn’t seem to ring true like:
1) Gwyneth’s job as a female master carpenter...would that be so given women’s lack of status at that time in history?,
2) Damia’s marketing job with a top University yet she had no MBA (my hubby is in marketing and you just don’t get a top job with a top employer without an MBA believe me!)
3) Toby’s death...I really don’t think he could have dragged himself (given the extent of is disabilities) all the way to that stream/river. Eight year old boys don’t think that deep let alone commit suicide!
It was interesting how people with disabilities were viewed and quite heart warming to see how Toby’s parents attempt at changing societies view on the worth of a disabled person by making sure they offered alms to the disabled and so increasing their worth within society.
It was also interesting the way the author highlights the fact that things dearly wished for don’t always turn out quite the way that you think... a sober lesson for us all and a warning to appreciate what we do have.

I must do further reading regarding Lollards.

Well that’s what I thought:-)


I enjoyed some of the historical part of the story as I do not know a lot about England's history - Lollards for one was a new term. I wish that Gwenyth's story had been delved into more. Simon, I grew weary of of quickly but the mayor's character was interesting.

I also liked the use of email's in the story.

On the whole though, I found the credibility of the story lacking. Would Toby really have done what he did for his dad or was that dad's imagination (and looking for some sort of sign to assuage his guilt?) Would the craftsmen really have listened to a woman? I had a hard time visualizing the wooden frame (but that may be unfair to put on the author). I did find it interesting that she set up some of her chapters in a Shakespearian way - by the way that she described the setting in italics at the intro of the chapters.

I'm glad that you suggested the book as I don't think that it is one that I would have read on my own.


I haven't read this book but now intend to--thank you for alerting it to me. I want to say quickly that women did indeed sometimes play active roles in the various medieval guilds. Quite often they were widows inheriting their husbands' work. In some guilds they were a strong force--for example ale wives(brewers) and bakers. This woman's role is quite feasible and I wonder if she is based on historical knowledge?


I had to go look this up as I couldn't remember the name. Read about the "Femme Sole" guild law. I am sure there will be plenty of internet information.


Thanks for that Erika...I wasn't sure of my history reguarding women and craft guilds were concerned. Have you any further reading you can suggest on this topic:-)

Julie Fredericksen

Here's the link to my book blog and the post in which I reviewed "Testament":

I thoroughly enjoyed my first "meeting" of this book club and look forward to hearing what you all think of Steinbeck's book for next month.

Alison are right Damia wouldn't have been in that level marketing job without an MBA:-)
loved your review:-)


Found this link about Medieval guilds and the Femme Sole guild law


Thanks for that link on the Femme Sole guild law, Alison. I wonder though whether Gwyneth would fall under that as she wasn't a widow.

And good point about Damia's high-level job despite the lack of an MBA. Somehow that flew right past me! It does seem like the college was behind in that area, since their last fundraising effort was put together by the dean. Maybe they couldn't afford someone with the proper credentials?

Mary McCartney

What did people think of the epilogue? I wasn't at all convinced....


I enjoyed this but think I'd have enjoyed it more if it had been more rigorously edited. (Do Macmillan skimp on editing as well as advances, I wonder?) The historical story was engrossing and very moving, I thought. But the modern story ... it was so flabby, and its politically-correct stock characters simply irritated me. I'd certainly have slashed the dreary lesbian love affair with a red pencil ... it added nothing.
It seemed such a clumsy framework to wrap around the sensitive historical story. In which the author created a world that, for me, was utterly convincing. In fact, the two halves jarred so much that you'd almost think two different people had written them.

Barbara MacLeod

I'm glad to have read the book but I found it an effort.  I kept going but found that I blew rather hot and cold with it.  Towards the end when she started this angst about having a child (page 518 out of 568) I put it down. After all the numerous topics that were addressed in the story this was just one too far!  There was just too much stuff ('issues' as they say nowadays) and too long.  It's like a concert where the singer sings every song they know instead of just giving the audience 20 minutes as requested by the organiser.

The good news, however, is that at Christmastime I sat in Glasgow Cathedral for their choir's 2 hour Christmas concert and  viewed the vast interior with a much better informed eye!  How the masons managed to get to such heights and build all those arches is quite wonderful! 

While not for me, I feel this book would be a good candidate for an all-women book group.


Just picking up on Damia, as several people have mentioned her, I, too, found it hard to empathise with her, and her 'issues', as Barbara says, were overdone. She'd have been a much stronger, clearer character without all that muddying her up, I feel.
Getting back to Gwyneth, her role is very interesting, though I'd have liked more on how she created the lantern roof as that loomed large at one point and then wasn't developed as I expected it would be.

Mr. Cornflower

Ambitious idea, some nice bits but would have benefited greatly from rigorous editing. I'm not quite sure about the whole time-slip wheeze - I blame "The French Lieutenant's Woman" for starting it - and the modern story is I think weaker than the mediaeval one.
On a completely separate topic, I was interested to hear that an MBA is an indispensable requirement for a top marketing job, my own observations of corporate life would not have led me to this conclusion. I probably mix with rather low-grade marketers!


...just try getting a good job in marketing without one these days!!! LOL


I read this last year, so it's not as fresh in memory as I'd like when commenting, but I think that while I enjoyed it, I agree with most of the caveats. Damia, especially, I found rather unappealing, and I much preferred the historical sections, though I thought the mdern story framed the other one quite well. It did need editing, though - very much a first novel, but certainly good enough to make me pick up her next...


Have it, but didn't get around to reading it yet (I blame Stones into Schools and midterm exams, equally: one more fun than the other, but both engrossing in their own ways) but these comments have insured that I will!

adele geras

I'm coming a bit late to this discussion as I've been away this weekend and I have to say I enjoyed the book very much and was never bored. I agree that the historical part was more interesting than the modern part but I thought they meshed together quite well. I'm a sucker for cathedrals being built! And I love campus novels so the author had two of my favourite themes right there, but I thought she managed the whole complicated structure of the book (a bit like building a cathedral I guess!) rather well, esp. considering this is a debut novel. Toby and the way the disability was handled I found very touching and well done and I loved the relationship between Simon and Gwyneth. All in all a well-written and thoughtful page-turner, even if perhaps a tad too long.


I wanted to like this book, but I did not feel that the characters were real or well-developed. In particular, very little about Damia felt true. In particular, the happy ending felt inadequate. I was disappointed, because the premise behind the book was interesting. I did read the entire book, but I really wouldn't recommend it.

Alis Hawkins

Hello to all in the Cornflower book group!

Firstly can I just say many, many thanks to Cornflower for choosing Testament as your January read - I am truly thrilled that it has been the subject of such lively discussion. Secondly, thank you all for your comments - it's been a treat to read such informed and thoughtful responses to the book.

The issue of Gwyneth's status as a master craftsman (craftsperson?) in her own right has often come up in discussion when I have done readings and group discussions so I am going to put up a long-overdue post on my own blog about this during the next couple of days. For those who are interested, I blog at

Again, many thanks for all your comments.
Kind regards to all


Alis, I shall flag up your comment, but for now, thankyou for giving us such an enjoyable read and so much to talk about!

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