Review: The Day of Atonement, by David Liss
Random House, 2014. 365 pp. $28
“Only a few hours in Lisbon, without even setting foot on land, and I had set things in motion,” says Sebastian Foxx, the protagonist of this revenge tale, set in 1745. “These people–my enemies–already danced upon my string. Unless I dangled upon their rope. That was also a possibility.”
It’s an accurate judgment, and for virtually the entire novel, neither Sebastian nor the reader can ever be sure whether a dance or a dangle is taking place, or who’s in control. All you do know is that Sebastian isn’t who he says he is, and that merely by entering Lisbon, he may be arrested, tortured, and killed any hour. Ditto the people he’s trying to help.
His real name is Sebastião Raposa, and to the Inquisition, he’s a heretic. Yes, the Inquisition still rules in 1745, and, as described in The Day of Atonement, its agents are a frighteningly efficient eighteenth-century Gestapo, except that they wear priestly robes instead of leather coats and trilbys. Their goal is to rid the city of New Christians–families that converted from Judaism generations before but forever suspect as nonbelievers–and to seize their property. The accusations are false, but that doesn’t matter. Under torture, the victim confesses and names accomplices.
When Sebastião was thirteen, someone had heard that his family was saving up money to flee this impossible trap, and charged them with heresy. Sebastião’s parents spirited him out of the country, but they remained to endure imprisonment and death. He landed in England, under the care and tutelage of Benjamin Weaver, former pugilist and current thief hunter, whom Liss fans know from other novels.
Now, as Sebastian Foxx, the young man has returned to his forefathers’ Jewish faith, and, in Lisbon, to kill his family’s accusers and the Inquisitor responsible for their deaths. He also dreams of finding Gabriela, his first love, whose family was denounced at the same time as his, and to return to England with her. What a mad, pointless scheme; as an old Lisbon friend tells him, taking on the Inquisition “is like taking revenge against the ocean to avenge a drowning.”
However, Sebastian doesn’t care what happens to him and feels no fear (or much of anything else), so numbed is he by his emotional losses. Fueled by fury, he’s a dangerous rival, capable of violence to a degree that startles everyone, even his mentor.
Nevertheless, he also means to do right, which makes The Day of Atonement a moral tale as well as a thriller, an exploration of the use and misuse of violence. While trying to decide who’s a villain, he acquires more victims to rescue, who also suffer as a result, giving him further sins to expiate. Hence the title: Yom Kippur, the Jewish day of atonement, requires more than fasting, prayer, and reflection. To obtain forgiveness, the penitent must seek it from the person he has wronged. Sebastian believes that if he can atone properly–free himself of his anger and right great wrongs–he can be whole again.
I like this setup, and Liss carries its promise to conclusion. He knows how to string out a confrontation, letting the tension rise and fall, only to rise again, in a way you hadn’t anticipated. I think of this as a kind of “no–and furthermore ,” in which a character supposes he’s getting somewhere, only to find out he’s not–and, furthermore, winds up in worse trouble. Whether it’s a twist of circumstance, a betrayal, or an unexpected task to fulfill, Liss piles on the “no–and furthermores” until you have no idea what’s flying, precisely Sebastian’s viewpoint.
A couple of the violent scenes (and there are many) seem Hollywood to me, and Sebastian passes through an emotional transition or two that appear too easy. Even so, of the six David Liss novels I’ve read, The Day of Atonement is my favorite since The Whiskey Rebels (2008).
Disclaimer: I borrowed my reading copy of this book from the public library.
More fine print: This week and next, I’ll be on vacation, so will post only once each week.