Onyx reviews: The Day of Atonement by David Liss
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 09/14/2014
When he was thirteen, Sebastião Raposa was smuggled out of Lisbon, bound for
London alone. His father had been arrested by the Portuguese Inquisition, his
mother was likely next, and only a young boy could possibly evade their
Monty Python has made the Spanish Inquisition a household phrase, but things
in Lisbon in the mid-18th century were far worse. The priests of the Inquisition
had free reign to imprison anyone indefinitely (usually permanently) and
confiscate their belongings. The Inquisitors' main targets were the New
Christians, former Jews who had been forced to convert to Catholicism, but
anyone could fall victim to their machinations. No one dared speak against them,
even in private, because there were spies everywhere, and anyone taken into the
Palace of the Inquisition would eventually betray even his closest friends to
stop the torture.
In London, while in the care of Benjamin Weaver, a professional "thief
taker" (bounty hunter) who has appeared in other Liss novels, Raposa hears
that his parents died in prison. The young boy decides to learn the skills of
his caretaker's trade. A decade after his exile, Raposa, a young man filled with
rage, returns to Portugal as Sebastian Foxx, an English businessman seeking his
fortune. His true goal is to kill Father Pedro Azinheiro, the priest he blames
for the destruction of his family. He also wants to reconnect with Gabriela, the
girl with whom he was in love.
Before he even disembarks from the boat the brings him to Portugal, Raposa is
greeted by the target of his quest. Azinheiro insists that Raposa act as a spy.
In return, he guarantees "Foxx's" quick ascension in the business
community. Even Englishmen are not immune to the Inquisition's reach, so Raposa
must walk a narrow line.
His complex relationship with Azinheiro allows him to impress the businessmen
whose assistance he seeks. One of his biggest concerns is that someone from his
past will recognize him, even though the 23-year-old man little resembles the
youth who was shipped off to London, or will identify his true nature as a Jew
in a city where even the New Christians have forgotten most of the rituals and
language of their former religion.
Lisbon is a city of violence and corruption. Old friends are not to be
trusted, and nothing is truly as it seems. Once the sun goes down, rogues and
bandits make the streets unsafe. Several things happen that force Raposa to
delay his revenge scheme. He discovers old obligations to and sins against his
family that he wishes to repay, and these efforts take time and planning. The
man who assisted his exodus from Lisbon is in a dangerous position because his
daughter is a Catholic and he is not. When the church threatens to take her away
from him, Raposa offers to help regain the money that he claims was stolen from
him by a pair of ruthless scoundrels so the man can take his daughter out of
Portugal. His once simple plan becomes fraught with layers of complexity. It
will take him weeks to establish his bona fides with the people who will lend
him the money he needs for his caper.
This type of revenge tale about a man has been wrongfully treated may bring
to mind The Count of Monte Cristo or the novels of Dumas acolyte Arturo Pérez-Reverte.
Liss has studied the history of Lisbon between 1745-1755, and presents a
convincing depiction of the difficult lives and times of the people of that
city. Anyone familiar with events from that period may anticipate something that
occurs late in the story that changes the course of Raposa's plans, an incident
which, were it not historical, might seem like deus ex machina. Even Raposa
wonders if it is a sign from God until he is reminded that he is suffering from
the arrogance that afflicts all who look for omens..
The book's title comes from the most important Jewish holy day, Yom Kippur,
which invites people to make peace and repent past sins. Liss explores the
nature of revenge and the meaning of atonement. Though Raposa might have acted
without thought if presented with the opportunity in his early days in Lisbon,
as he becomes more enmeshed in people's lives, he begins to have second
thoughts. Can the past be remade? Can pain and destruction be erased by an act
Raposa makes fatal mistakes that bring about death and destruction to others.
These new transgressions force him to call into question his judgment. Many
years have passed, and some of the people who brought about his family's
suffering have also fallen on hard times in the interim. Will he feel better if
he brings about the demise of his targets? Or is he willing to give up his
thirst for revenge for the sake of others?
In a way, Liss has his cake and eats it too on this question, but the bigger
picture is that Raposa is not the only person who is seeking expiation and to
put to rest the past. Raposa's time in Lisbon is transformative and puts him in
a position to get on with the rest of his life. Assuming he gets out of the city
alive, that is.
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