At first glance, Testament
looks like an historical manuscript, an account of how technological change (the creation of a harness) improves the lives of some past community -- people quite pious, earnest, and naive in ways that neatly meet our perceptions of the primitive innocence of the past (and the pastoral). Lots of praying, hard living and easy dying, yet the world somehow more lovely than our own. We soon realize, however, that the document's footnotes are the product of anthropological rather than historical investigation, as Mandragora is an utterly-isolated preserve -- and the novel traces the intersection of cultures, paradigms.
What's to like: after baiting us early on with images easy to situate in our sense of the inhabitants past as ridiculously innocent (read "rather stupid"--I mean, a harness? that beggars belief), the novel commits to the far more complicated work of upending assumptions. It takes the template of Escapist or Alien Elsewhere and with great patience weaves a story of contact, and of subsequent "contamination," which more subtly sets us thinking on those old tropes of the Pastoral: the meaning of Life, the inevitability of Death, the details of Work, the discovery of Wonder in each day. Barton is committed to the thoughtfulness of her creations, and there are no patsies, no villains -- the novel mercifully avoids easy ironies, resisting stereotypes on all sides (no stupid naifs, nor stupid sophisticates).
Yet I found it rather painstaking -- the high-concept set-up of Mandragora seemed to promise more acrobatic intellectual games, but the novel is more intent on a realist investment in its depictions of these lives. It begs the question: why Mandragora? And I think you could complain, with some justification, that while far more subtle the novel still reiterates generic conventions, its Shangri-La more grounded but equally unbelievably magical. Still, Barton's prose and characterization can be quite lovely, and I read it right through with interest, even if such engagement faded as I puzzled over my reactions. Maybe 2.5 stars.