Fiction is fun, but don't mess with the history

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Day of Atonement, by David Liss (2014)

Each new novel by David Liss is eagerly anticipated by fans of clever and fast-paced plotting that nevertheless refuses to sacrifice historical accuracy. The Day of Atonement is their reward. This tale continues the Liss mastery of creatively-evolving plots with surprising twists and turns, even when readers already know the historical climax.

Set mostly in Lisbon, Portugal, in the year 1755, the curtain opens as our protagonist flashes back ten years to when, as 13-year-old Lisbon-born "New Christian" Sebastiao Raposa, he was smuggled to London to escape the Inquisition that took his parents. He returns as English merchant-adventurer Sebastian Foxx, bent on revenge.    

The five criteria:
  1. Did the novel inspire me to further historical research?
Yes. I hadn't realized that the terrors of the Inquisition lasted so much longer in Portugal than in neighboring Spain. Neither had I heard of the devastating 1755 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed Lisbon.

Liss once again does a nice job of connecting Jewish religious beliefs and practices to the plot. The observance referred to in the title, The Day of Atonement, is known more commonly by Americans as Yom Kippur. The meaning of the central concept, in Foxx's mind, evolves during the story along with his self-discovery and maturing understanding of what seemed at first to be a straightforward mission.
   Score = 5
  1. Did the novel include enough history to make it an interesting historical story?
Yes, although not as much as it might have. Although the setting was historical, along with some general activities like the Inquisition and the England-Portugal trade, more specific historical events and characters were in short supply.

That's not always a bad thing, however. Many historical novels are dragged down by the author's noble attempt to cram in a lot of history. A recent lesson to me on how that can happen was Master and God, by Lindsey Davis.
   Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical events accurate?
Yes, as far as I can tell. Descriptions of historical settings are generally consistent with what I've read elsewhere. An accurate picture of pre-earthquake Lisbon is problematic, but Liss seems to have put a lot of research into that area. One thing I really missed was a map of the city which, even if partly fictional, would have helped the reader to follow the movements that are so important to the story.
   Score = 4
  1. Was the depiction of historical characters accurate?
There aren't many, so accuracy is not much of a concern. For example, the historical "Count of Oeiras" is not actually a character but is mentioned in passing toward the end of the story. Liss doesn't try, however, to be biographical, so the lack of historical characters is not a criticism. Accuracy is the criterion: is it more accurate to fictionalize historical individuals or to leave them out altogether? Still, inclusion of a few historical names is fun, even if only in non-speaking roles.
   Score = 4
  1. Were the fictional or fictionalized plot and characters plausible?
Mostly. Some of the characters' dialog and/or inner soliloquy, along with some of the actions those thoughts led to, made me ask: "Seriously?" Although it's common novelistic practice to imbue archaic characters with modern ideas, historical novelists can also get away with a lot of questionable thinking by characters. Would you expect the rantings of an 18th-century priest of the Inquisition to make sense?
   Score = 4

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