This is one of the absolute best books I have read in awhile. I also enjoyed Naomi’s Sacrifice of Tamar, but this book blows that one out of the water! A bias of mine is that I love good historical novels about strong, vital women. I just saw Cleopatra, A Life in Pegasus Booksellers, by a Pulitzer Prize winning author. It will go onto my reading list. I married into a prominent British Sephardic family, the Sebag-Montefiores, so the fact that this book is about an actual Sephardic heroine from the family of Nasi-Mendes who survived the Inquisition and ran an underground railroad that helped thousands of Jews escape death.
The story is set up alternating between the present-day decendents in New York and manuscripts discovered around Europe that were part of Hannah’s memoirs. Catherine da Costa has cancer and realizes that while she made life for her daughter and granddaughters very easy materially, she has neglected their religious education and a passing down of traditions and family history. She pictures her family as a giant tree with many branches, most of them now bare. Her two granddaughters are in their late twenties or early thirties and show no signs of marrying and producing more young leaves for the tree.
She sends her granddaughters on a quest to Europe to look for more parts of the manuscript Hannah penned in the 1500’s. There are a series of interesting coincidences or could it be that the ghost of Hannah Mendes is looking over their shoulder and guiding them. I enjoyed the rich descriptions of the old parts of Toledo, Spain, the ancient synagogues, and the lives of the conversos or crypto-Jews. During the Inquisition, many Jews converted to Catholicism to avoid torture and death. Some of these New Christians still did not escape as their neighbors were jealous of their great wealth and power. If you turned in a Jew or heretic to the Inquistion you received a part of their estate. And torture can do wonders to turn child against parent and friend against friend. We have seen more recently what happened during the Nazi regime.
There are stunning descriptions, interesting accounts of hidden Jewish rituals and secret ways Jews identified themselves to one another during the period. There is adventure, tradgedy, romance, bravery, a little of the supernatural, all compelling. I didn’t want to put this book down. I came to care about the characters. As I neared the end of the book, I hoped it wouldn’t end or that there might be a sequel. If you like these kinds of historical novels, you might also enjoy The Red Tent by Diamant about Sarah and Hagar in Abraham’s family.