Testament by Kim Sherwood. A book review by Susie Butler
By Ian G Evans, on 10 May 2019
‘Of the boy I was, there is no trace. It comes down to memory. And I remember nothing.’
An identity deliberately wiped out by memory, Testament tells the story of Joseph Silk – esteemed artist, beloved grandfather and Hungarian Holocaust survivor. Kim Sherwood’s Bath Novel Award winning debut is a compelling yet harrowing novel, inspired by true events, which explores the complexity of grief and identity.
Upon Silk’s death, his granddaughter Eva finds a letter from The Jewish Museum in Berlin. They request to publish Silk’s testimony as part of an exhibit on Jewish artists impacted by the holocaust. The document reveals Silk’s traumatic experiences throughout the Holocaust from labour to death camps. A past life once well hidden and shrouded in secrecy, has now been exposed. Eva searches to unravel Silk’s true identity, discovering her grandfather’s haunting tale and the way in which it has constructed fragile familial relationships. Eva must decide what to do with the testimony. She knows that by allowing her grandfather to be portrayed by his hidden history, the narrative of his identity will be changed indefinitely. Yet, the atrocities Joseph faced from his experiences during the war and as a refugee must be preserved. Silk’s new found past has given Eva access to an unexplored family history. This complicates her decision on how to immortalise her grandfather – as the artist he worked so hard to become, or as the man who so desperately deleted his history. The combination of the two creates an impossible burden for Eva.
Sherwood admirably transitions between narrative voices seamlessly from Eva in the present day to Silk as a teenager. Through this dual narrative, the reader bears witness to Silk’s testimony. This narrative choice is a clear strength of Sherwood’s. Alongside the cleverly interspersed testimony questions throughout the text, a vivid image of Silk’s suffering is created. He reveals the trauma of loss and the guilt of survival, a feeling he can never shake, and one that forces a wedge between himself and his brother, László who he fears he has lost forever. Silk’s experiences have left him with an irreversible psychological scar, one that will haunt his family for generations to come.
This is an incredibly ambitious debut. In her Acknowledgments, Sherwood exhibits the depth of her research, including work with the Hungarian Committee for Attending Deportees and The Royal National Institute of Blind People. Her research is convincingly explored through an impressively beautiful text. I was gripped by the events that underpinned the man he had become in the exposition of the novel. The story demonstrates how perceptions can quickly change with knowledge. The twists and turns of the novel emphasise this, successfully managing to keep readers on their toes. The novel so well encapsulates the themes of grief, guilt and cross generational identity as well as what it means to be Jewish today. Although deeply emotional, what I found impressive was the author’s ability to leave the reader contemplating the formation of identity: ‘We are here because history doesn’t happen in the past tense.’ This poignant message assured me of Sherwood’s talents. Tackling such a sensitive topic through intelligently written prose is no mean feat. I look forward to whatever comes next from this talented author.
Testament is published by riverrun