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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 notice. 

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 of vengeance?

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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