David Liss is the author of several very well researched novels taking place in mid 18th century London. He uses Benjamin Weaver, a man of Jewish descent as his principal protagonist.
The Day of Atonement is set at about the same time involving a man with the anglicized name of Sebastian Foxx (born Sebastiao Raposa). Sebastian is born in Lisbon, Portugal into what was then termed a New Christian family. This denotes people that converted to Christianity in order to avoid capture and torture by the Portuguese Inquisition. But they secretly practiced Judaism among themselves in order to maintain contact with the religion of their birth.
Inquisitions in other countries in Europe had somewhat toned down their inhumane practices, but the Portuguese sector remained as harsh as ever. When Sebastian is about 13 years of age his father and than his mother are seized by the Inquisition, imprisoned and eventually die. Fortunately, Sebastian’s mother is able to send him out of the country to England, where Benjamin Weaver takes him in and raises him into early manhood.
Weaver is a bounty hunter and teaches him all the physical and coercive tricks used on the objects of his hunts. Sebastian eventually makes the decision to return to Lisbon, to avenge his parents by killing the priest that imprisoned them, possibly find and continue with a girl he knew before he left Portugal and thought that he was in love with and perhaps get hold of the fortune that his parents had and secreted from the Inquisition.
Liss is a master of bringing his readers into the period and place he is writing about and The Day of Atonement is no different in that regard from the books about Weaver in England. We see a Lisbon a city filled with filth, terrified of the Inquisition, and replete with corruption. A highlight of the novel is a description of a monumental earthquake that struck Lisbon on November 1, 1775, killing about 90,000 people, and leveling most of it. The same quake did damage in north Africa, and neighboring European cities.
We are brought into the disaster and made to understand the horror felt by all that were involved in it. Sebastian and people he has met and befriended in his attempting to accomplish what he wants while in Lisbon are affected by the change in circumstances of the monumental quake. The novel ends on a perfect note to set the reader up for the next one in a possible series using Sebastian Foxx as the principal protagonist. Well written, well researched and a draw for the reader into the world of the 18th century.
10/14 Paul Lane
THE DAY OF ATONEMENT by David Liss. Random House (September 23, 2014). ISBN 978-1400068975. 384p.