The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover
Historical fiction, 227 pages, Paperback
Harper Collins (December 30, 2008)
Abraham is a devout Italian Jew of the sixteenth century. He travels to strange and exotic places as a jewel trader for his uncle's business. No matter how far from the eyes of fellow worshippers or in what circumstances he find himself, he continues his morning prayers and religious rituals. He deals honestly in business and tries to be kind and tolerant even in unusual circumstances. When he reaches the Burmese port city of Pegu in 1598 he expects to remain the man he is. But a shocking stumbling block to his faith will be put squarely in his path and how he handles it will affect his being tolerated in this strange kingdom and how well he will do in business. He struggles fiercely against compromise for some time.
Told entirely through the daily letters home to his beloved cousin Joseph, it is at once an adventure and a compelling story about what is really important to us. How far would we would go to experience and keep true love? When the pressure to follow the local custom of deflowering young brides to bring luck to the families becomes intolerable he reasons with himself "The law and my heart must be one. How could I follow my heart and betray the law and still call myself a Jew? But how could the law demand I betray my heart? I would be lost if I had to do either." The Jewel Trader of Pegu is not about sex as some have imagined. It's about the moral dilemma of a man who wants to do the right thing. The choice Abraham makes will change his life forever.
This is sensitive story telling, often with profound philosophical or spiritual insights into the differences of religion, culture and social customs. Abraham slowly realizes that it's not really his place to judge these people who tattoo their legs with grotesques images, or scar their faces and blacken their teeth. He is surprised to find himself beginning to view their customs and Buddhist thinking in a different light. Though he will be happy to finish his uncle's business and leave for home. Then war, along with looting and reprisals threaten the town. All other foreigners have reasonably fled for home but Abraham has suddenly and unexpectedly found, in a young widow named Mya, a reason for staying and risking everything.
This is one of the best novels I've read this year. A gem of a story, I give it five stars and my highest recommendation.
Jeffrey Hantover's web page
Thank you to Danny Goldstein at Harper Collins for the review copy.
Also reviewed at:
Devourer of Books
Everything Distills into Reading
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