A Seder with a height­ened nar­ra­tive

The Jewish Chronicle - - Arts&entertainment -

joins his ex­tended fam­ily for Seder night. This night is cer­tainly dif­fer­ent from all other nights — it ends with his un­cle’s vi­o­lent death.

But now Ja­cob’s com­man­ders have an even more com­pli­cated as­sign­ment. They ask him to meet, and marry, a young Jewish girl at the cen­tre of a spy ring in Vir­ginia, and re­port back on her ac­tiv­i­ties. Eu­ge­nia Levy seems beau­ti­ful, con­fi­dent and head­strong but is slowly re­vealed to be des­per­ately un­happy: a few years ear­lier, she wit­nessed her mother be­ing mur­dered by a slave.

Pre­dictably, Rap­pa­port falls in love with her, and is forced to de­cide whether to stand by her or his coun­try. Less pre­dictably, he chooses his coun­try. For al­most half the novel, he is learn­ing to come to terms with his choice.

The novel’s mo­tif is the na­ture of free­dom — for Ja­cob, who is first trapped by his par­ents’ ex­pec­ta­tions, then by those of the army; for Amer­ica’s slaves, who may be owned by other men, but are of­ten por­trayed here as de­ter­min­ing their own fate; and for the Jews, both those of the South, whose din­ner on Seder Night, dur­ing the festi- val of free­dom, is served by slaves, and the im­mi­grant Jews on both sides of the war, who fled to the New World to build new lives, but only re­ally be­come ac­cepted by dy­ing for it.

It is all beau­ti­fully wo­ven to­gether and if the novel does not have the stylis­tic in­no­va­tion of Horn’s pre­vi­ous books, it com­pen­sates with some mem­o­rable and au­da­cious char­ac­ters.

Rap­pa­port is, in fact, the most or­di­nary. Eu­ge­nia, a bud­ding con­jurer who can dis­lo­cate her jaw at will, is par­tic­u­larly strik­ing. So is the his­tor­i­cal fig­ure of Ju­dah Ben­jamin, the Con­fed­er­ate’s Jewish sec­re­tary of state, and Thomas Jef­fer­son’s clos­est ad­viser.

The lat­ter, ac­cord­ing to the au­thor’s after­word, man­aged, af­ter the col­lapse of the Con­fed­er­acy, “a fab­u­lous es­cape, in­volv­ing ev­ery­thing from dis­guis­ing him­self as a French­man to travers­ing the swamps of Florida on foot, to fol­low­ing a talk­ing par­rot to the home of a Con­fed­er­ate sym­pa­thiser, to sur­viv­ing the sink­ing of one boat in the Caribbean and a fire on an­other”. Ben­jamin fi­nally made his way to Eng­land, where he had cit­i­zen­ship hav­ing been born in the Bri­tish West Indies, be­came a QC and au­thored a Trea­tise on the Law of Sale of Per­sonal Prop­erty, which is still used to­day.

That fab­u­lous foot­note is alone worth the cover price of what is an en­ter­tain­ing as well as thought­ful book.

Miriam Sha­viv is the JC’s for­eign ed­i­tor

Dara Horn: mem­o­rable char­ac­ters

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