THE DAY OF ATONEMENT by David Liss

(18th century Lisbon, Portugal)

In David Liss’ new book, The Day of Atonement we meet Sebastiao Raposa, a thirteen year old boy who is forced by his mother to flee Lisbon because of the actions of the Inquisition.  In the mid 18th century Portugal is in the midst of a virulent Inquisition that targets any one and anything for what it perceives to be a violation of the Catholic churches precepts.  Sebastiao’s father has been seized by the Inquisition and his mother knows that she and her son will be next.  She convinces a former business associate of her husband, Charles Settwell to smuggle Sebastiao on a ship that was sailing for Falmouth, England.  The young man will make his way to London where he will remain for ten years before returning to Lisbon in 1755.  He assumes the identity of a business man named Sebastiao Foxx to seek revenge against Pedro Azinhiero, the Inquisitor who had destroyed his family and forced him to forsake a young girl, Gabriela,  who he believed would someday become his wife.  Unhappy as to what he had become in London he chose to return to Lisbon to gain the satisfaction of destroying the Inquisition and restoring his self worth.

While in London Sebastiao came under the tutelage of Benjamin Weaver, a character that Liss had developed in previous novels; A Conspiracy of Paper, A Spectacle of Corruption, and more recently, The Devil’s Company.  Weaver is a former Jewish boxer, now a “thief taker” (“a person paid to find people and other things” (42) who Liss employs to explore the corruption, economic panic and anti-Semitism among other ills of society.  In his new novel Liss has Weaver teach Sebastiao the art of deception and the skills needed to catch and punish thieves.  Sebastiao’s family was among many Jewish families that had been forced to convert to Christianity generations ago.  They were called “New Christians” but many maintained their religion in secret.  Though raised a Catholic, while in London Sebastiao was circumcised and renewed his commitment to Judaism.  Once in Lisbon he meets a number of characters who play an important role in his trying to achieve his goals, however the more people he meets the more difficult it becomes to maintain his new identity and carry out his wishes.

Sebastiao meets with Charles Settwell, who has fallen on hard times, when he learns that his father may have been betrayed to the Inquisition, as Settwell states, “I fear he was the victim of a plot to take his wealth and throw him to the dogs that he might expose the crime.” (65)  Further, the Inquisition is still angry that his father’s wealth was not recovered.  This and further information make Sebastiao aware that his task had become more complex.

(tidal wave that resulted from the earthquake that hit Lisbon, November 1, 1755)

At first Liss seems to describe a plot of simple revenge by a child grown into manhood against a corrupt priest.  The goal of revenge quickly grows in proportion to include; ensuring the safety of a number of individuals, and paying a few past debts relating to his father and his childhood.  This is the dilemma that Liss’ protagonist must confront as he is faced with a contest of wills with Pedro Azenhiero, the man he set out to kill, but also is the man who threatens all those he loves from his past.  As the story unfolds Sebastiao falls deeper and deeper into the abyss of human deception.  One after another of his beliefs and relationships seem to fall by the wayside.  Liss weaves an engrossing tale full of foul characters, deceit, and a yearning for love and stability.  What emerges is that Sebastiao comes to the realization that his inability to judge others has allowed him to fall into a trap that he must figure a way out of.  Sebastiao’s actions become clouded in moral judgment as he must make decisions that will alter the lives of all around him.  He is confronted with his inability to murder the Inquisitor when Lisbon falls victim to a major earthquake.

Liss presents wonderful word pictures through his prose.  The scenes he paints of 18th century Lisbon are effective and accurate.  His description of Lisbon during the earthquake reflects the intense preparation that Liss engages in once he sits down to prepare a story.  He produces marvelous character sketches and allows the reader to enter the phenomenological world of each individual and watch their own emotions rise and fall depending on how a given scene evolves.  Liss confronts what is the dichotomy of life, the quandary of human emotion.  The issues of greed, revenge, temptation, love, kindness, sincerity are all explored.  Is atonement and redemption possible?  I guess what it comes down to is that people are nothing more than a mixture of flaws and virtues.  All of which are explored in Liss’ wonderful novel.

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