Shortly after finishing In the Shadows of the Pomegranate Tree by Tariq Ali I was inspired to seek out other books about 15th-century Spain. I wanted to understand more about this period, in which the last shreds of the convivencia of Al-Andalus disappeared forever (if it had ever truly existed). In its place arose the orthodox Catholic Spanish state, with its Inquisition and its autos-da-fé. Laurel Corona’s novel offers a perspective which perfectly complements Ali’s: while he tells the story of Reconquista from a Muslim point of view, Corona looks at the experience of the Jewish people in Spain and Portugal at the same date. It was only at the end of the book that I came to realise how cleverly she has woven her protagonist into the history of two real and very distinguished Jewish families.
Amalia is born in Seville in 1426, the daughter of Vicente Riba and his wife Rosaura. Vicente is the grandson of the Majorcan cartographer Abraham Cresques, who was responsible for the superb Catalan Atlas, compiled in 1375 for the future John I of Aragon. Vicente’s father Jehuda, who took the Christian name Jaume Riba, helped in the atlas’s creation; and mapmaking remains the Riba family’s livelihood. Indeed, their most cherished possession, which Amalia carries with her throughout her life, is a second copy of that precious atlas.
To the eyes of the outside world, the Riba family has converted to Christianity; but in secret Rosaura continues to uphold the precepts and traditions of the Jewish faith. Even in the 1430s this is dangerous: the conversos or anusim are shunned by Jews and Christians alike. Amalia’s family is divided between those who refuse to give up their heritage, like Rosaura and Amalia herself; and those, like her sisters Susana and Luisa, whose outward conversion to Christianity eventually becomes internal as well. This is a story about faith and intolerance and the increasing danger of being seen to be different.
But, although these themes form the bedrock of the novel, it is also a story about a woman growing from girlhood to old age, her life encompassing almost the whole 15th century and much of the Iberian peninsula. Amalia has always been extraordinary: a bright, inquisitive middle child. When tragedy strikes their family, she and her father travel to Portugal to find work at the court of Henry the Navigator. Here Amalia finds the foundations of her future: marriage; independence; and the loving friendship of the Abravanel family, which reconnects her with her Jewish heritage.
There’s a knowledge deep in our bones that some lines cannot be crossed without becoming unrecognizable to ourselves – the only death truly to be feared. I know who I have been. I know who I am. I know who I will remain.
The novel is sobering in its depiction of the growing prejudice against the Jewish people, especially when you know as little as I did about the extent of discrimination at this date. If the Muslims faced open violence and slaughter at the fall of Granada, the Jews were the victims of a more longstanding and insidious hatred. The book is passionate in its desire to show how unjust and undeserved such treatment was. Corona herself is a passionate advocate of the dignity and kindliness of Jewish culture and her authorial voice has a marked presence in certain aspects of the story.
The writing is generally poised and elegant; but there were a couple of things that didn’t quite work for me. The book’s structure allows it to move back and forth between the ‘present’ (the elderly Amalia in 1492) and the ‘past’. As Amalia encounters key figures in the past, we flit back into the present where the spirits of these characters appear to her older self. They don’t come as memories, but as ghostly voices who encourage her, fill her with love and dispense wisdom from the afterlife. I found this rather saccharine and unnecessary – though this is very much a personal preference.
The other area I found unconvincing is more objective: many of the relationships in the novel don’t feel real. For example, Amalia’s liaison with the charming Granadan emissary Jamil seems to spring from nowhere. They bump into one another in the palace, realise they are both poets, and fall in love instantly while everyone around them winks at their affair (showing remarkable open-mindedness for the mid-15th century). But the problem is that this supposedly dazzling relationship lacks emotional conviction. It seems to exist mainly to give Amalia some satisfying sex, after her very lacklustre marriage, and to give us an excuse to travel to Granada so we can witness the difference in Muslim and Christian treatments of their Jewish neighbours. Similarly, when Amalia encounters Tarab we are quickly told that this woman is her enemy, her ‘nemesis’, with no reason, example or justification given until much later. It’s odd: some characters are so rounded and warm that they could step off the page (like Judah Abravanel), but others feel like merely stock figures (‘the bitchy rival’; ‘the romantic hero’).
Thus: the writing was often beautiful, but there were points where the plot appeared to be driven by dramatic necessity rather than natural developments. Nevertheless this is still an engaging book, full of historical colour and detail, and the story is an affecting blend of tragedy and resilience. If you’re keen to learn more about the period, it offers a rich picture of Jewish life in Iberia; and indeed, the explanation of the various Jewish traditions was one of the most interesting aspects for me, because I know so little about that culture. Ultimately, though, I’m still searching for the Great Novel of the Spanish 15th Century…
I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for a fair and honest review.