• Review
By – January 7, 2019

Tes­ta­ment, a debut by Eng­lish author Kim Sher­wood, is a nov­el about truth — and the crip­pling effect its oppo­site has both on those who pro­duce and endure it. The sto­ry cen­ters on twen­ty-four-year-old Eva But­ler and her grand­fa­ther, Holo­caust sur­vivor and famous British painter Joseph Silk, born Jószef Zyyad. Eva’s present-day search to uncov­er her grandfather’s his­to­ry and under­stand his eva­sive­ness about it alter­nates with a third-per­son nar­ra­tive of Jószef’s expe­ri­ences as a young man. The hor­rors of the Holo­caust are unde­ni­able for the sur­vivors in this sto­ry, but it is the var­i­ous ways in which they han­dle this truth after­ward that build much of the novel’s ten­sion. Framed by ques­tions from an actu­al ques­tion­naire com­plet­ed by Holo­caust sur­vivors in Hun­gary in 1945 (“No. 1: the num­ber on your tat­too”), this poignant sto­ry of a Jew­ish fam­i­ly from Budapest expands into Cen­tral Europe and beyond — from There­sien­stadt to the Lake Dis­trict of Eng­land, from Sajmîste in Yugoslavia to the Jew­ish Muse­um in Berlin.

As a teenag­er, Jószef enlists in a labor bat­tal­ion, as his moth­er believes this will pro­vide her son’s only chance to sur­vive. After a bru­tal year under­ground in the Bor mines in Yugoslavia, József emerges into day­light with dimin­ished eye­sight, the result of a beat­ing. His lit­er­al change in vision mir­rors the warped real­i­ty of his world, and his inabil­i­ty to clear­ly see his place in it; ulti­mate­ly, he uses his altered vision to cre­ate paint­ings. Some of Sherwood’s most poet­ic pas­sages address the theme of art, as when Jószef encoun­ters Lyonel Feininger’s paint­ing Old Stone Bridge, suf­fused with blues, throb­bing with a dimen­sion­al­i­ty he could walk into.” His future as a painter is sealed as he real­izes that there is a world, a lan­guage, in which he can live.”

His past too painful to accept, József rejects it and cul­ti­vates a new per­sona. He becomes some­one born in Lon­don after the war. He adopts an angli­cized name, Joseph Silk, and ratio­nal­izes his dis­card­ed past: If being Jew­ish means no home or one home or home with yel­low papers, means Yid­dish or Eng­lish or Hun­gar­i­an but not all three, means … apol­o­giz­ing to the man in the street, means a long sto­ry, means hyphens, means search­ing for a new way to be a cho­sen peo­ple, a new way to be Euro­pean in exile, a new way to be — then wouldn’t it be eas­i­er … to sim­ply not be Jew­ish? To be sim­ply British.”

Even­tu­al­ly Silk requests that the tes­ta­ment he pro­vid­ed as Jószef in Budapest after his lib­er­a­tion from Gun­skirchen be destroyed. Erro­neous­ly assum­ing his wish grant­ed, he glides along in his new role as suave artist, ser­i­al phi­lan­der­er, neglect­ful par­ent — and dot­ing grand­fa­ther. Silk con­trasts with his broth­er Lás­zló, who retains his Jew­ish iden­ti­ty after equal­ly har­row­ing expe­ri­ences and ulti­mate­ly emi­grates to Israel. Lás­zló feels that his old­er broth­er has shame­ful­ly repu­di­at­ed their shared past. At one point Eva remem­bers, as a child, over­hear­ing an argu­ment between her grand­fa­ther and great-uncle, and lat­er ask­ing Silk, What’s a cam­ou­flage Jew?”

Pieces of the truth are grad­u­al­ly revealed through­out the nov­el. The real­i­ty is often hurt­ful, as when Eva real­izes that her adored grand­fa­ther has deceived her by with­hold­ing cru­cial parts of his past, or when a young moth­er — a sur­vivor of There­sien­stadt — faces the fact that with her shriv­eled heart” she can­not love her infant son. Yet occa­sion­al­ly the exposed truth in Tes­ta­ment is beau­ti­ful, such as when the iden­ti­ty of a grave’s care­tak­er — the plot thou­sands of miles from home — comes to light. There is also the pro­found truth of mem­o­ry, which Jószef con­sid­ers after being moved by the music of a rare con­cert: He for­gets the guards at the door as colour drops into the black lone­li­ness … so that he can see the room bet­ter than ever before: there are no walls that mat­ter, no barbed wire, only the truth that what once filled his mother’s liv­ing room can still exist here, no mat­ter how the world inverts itself.”

Tes­ta­ment also explores themes of aban­don­ment, love, and redemp­tion, all of which are present in the frac­tured rela­tion­ship between Silk, Eva, and John, Silk’s son and Eva’s father. The effects of the Holo­caust have rip­pled out­ward, dam­ag­ing peo­ple gen­er­a­tions removed from the sur­vivors. At the novel’s close, Eva mus­es about her slow­ly mend­ing rela­tion­ship with her father: We live in dif­fer­ent lands. We only share a bor­der. But haven’t some of the most extra­or­di­nary events in human his­to­ry occurred on borders?”

Writ­ing about the Holo­caust with­in a fic­tion­al con­text com­bines the chal­lenges of fact-check­ing with the cre­ation of real­is­tic and engag­ing char­ac­ters to inhab­it this dark peri­od. That Sher­wood has ele­vat­ed this sto­ry to lyri­cal beau­ty — a writ­ten por­trait as gor­geous as Silk’s per­pet­u­al Blue Peri­od paint­ings — is tes­ta­ment to her abil­i­ties as both sto­ry­teller and historian.

Amy Spun­gen, a free­lance edi­tor and writer, has a BS in jour­nal­ism from Vir­ginia Com­mon­wealth Uni­ver­si­ty and an MA in Eng­lish from North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She lives near Chica­go in High­land Park, Illinois.

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