The Stars of Heaven by Jessica Dall


How wonderful to find a new English language novel set in Portugal.  There are annoyingly few of them.  There really ought to be more.  The Portuguese are our oldest allies. It’s actually the oldest known extant alliance in the world.  They’ve got red postboxes like we have.  They gave us Cristiano Ronaldo.  They gave us pasteis de nata.  They *definitely* deserve more recognition in English historical fiction 🙂 .  The author of this is actually American, but one of the main characters, is, of course, a British wine trader.  And it’s set during a fascinating period of Portuguese history – the 1755 earthquake, which devastated the lovely city of Lisbon, the rebuilding, and the Pombaline reforms which broke the power of the old aristocracy, the Jesuits and the Inquisition, as tradition and the Enlightenment clashed.

The author’s American, as I said, and the language is very American – which is obviously fair enough, but all the “gottens” etc may sound a bit odd to British readers.  And our wine trader from the south coast sometimes sounds very Northern, and the use of first names in the very formal Portuguese court is annoying.  And the ending is a bit bonkers.  OK, moans over!   For the most part, I really enjoyed it.

Our main character is Cecilia, daughter of a gentry (as opposed to aristocracy) family, who’s taken in by her uncle after her widowed mother is killed in the Lisbon earthquake.  Cecilia is rescued by her uncle’s business associate, British wine trader John Bates (named after the character in Downton Abbey, perhaps?!), and there’s, inevitably, an on-off romance.  The uncle is close ally of Pombal … who, as he wasn’t the Marquess of Pombal at that point, but plain old Senhor Carvalho de Melo, is referred to here as Senhor Carvalho.  Quite correct, but it did throw me for a bit, because I think of him as Pombal.   Like when you read a book set during the early period of the Napoleonic Wars and it refers to “Arthur Wellesley”: it just takes you a minute!

Cecilia’s younger sister also survives, but her mental health is affected and she just keeps praying, leading people to say that she’s a miracle child.  That’s all a bit odd, especially as the sister then goes into a convent and plays no further part in the story, but presumably it’s to show the contrast between the “estrangeirados”, the pro-scientific/Enlightment faction led by Carvalho, and the faction of the Jesuit Malagrida, who said that the earthquake was a punishment for people’s sins.  A brother, who’s a priest, also survives, and is in the Malagrida camp.

Pombal, as he became, did a vast amount of good culturally and economically.  His reforms to the wine trade weren’t that great from a British viewpoint, but, OK, they were from a Portuguese viewpoint.  That isn’t mentioned, curiously, and nor is the Seven Years’ War: the focus is all on the factions at court.

But he was ruthless, and we see that here – one of Cecilia’s suitors is an innocent victim of the Tavora affair, which saw a large number of powerful aristocrats executed rather than only the small number of people linked to an attack on the king, and Cecilia herself, now living at court, is drawn into his network of spies.

There’s a rather bizarre ending in which the brother is broken out of jail by Cecilia and the wine trader, and everyone escapes to France: it’s not the best of endings to an interesting book, but I suppose it was the only way to get Cecilia out of the spy network.  Daft ending and a few other moans besides, it really is a very interesting book.  As I said, Portuguese history deserves a lot more attention in English language fiction than it gets.

Hunting Midnight by Richard Zimler


Word PressThis was a rather strange combination of topics: all of them were interesting individually, but I’m not sure how well they worked as a combination. The book kicked off in Porto, during the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, with, as its main character, John Zarco Stewart, the young son of a Scottish father – there having long been a British presence in Porto, especially since the 1703 Methuen Treaty – and a Portuguese mother.

John made friends with two people a bit older than himself – Daniel, who ended up drowning, and Violeta, who was abused by her uncle and then disappeared. Not very cheerful, and poor John struggled to cope with it all. In the middle of all this, there was a lot of talk about Marranos – the “crypto-Jews” of Spain and Portugal, who were officially Catholic but practised Judaism in secret. Daniel’s family were Marranos, and there were hints that John’s mother was a Marrana as well … but it wasn’t particularly convincing because she didn’t do any Marrana stuff.   If you’re going to write about Marranos, you need someone to be lighting candles on a Friday night. It’s the Marrano thing. You can put chicken sausages in as well, if you like, but it’s very weird to do Marranos without the Friday night candles. I don’t know why the author, who is apparently an expert on the subject of Marranos, didn’t include them, but it was rather annoying.

Then John’s father went off to South Africa to look for vineyards, and came back accompanied by a Bushman called Midnight. Yes, yes, I know that we’re now supposed to use the term “San” rather than the term “Bushman”; but the book used “Bushman” throughout. There was quite a lot about San culture and beliefs, which was very interesting – sadly, the Khoi-San people tend to be the forgotten people of South African history – but the idea that a Scotsman would go off from Porto to the South African winelands and that a Bushman would move from South Africa to Porto, especially in wartime, just seemed rather far-fetched. Midnight was a healer, and had come to Europe to search for a cure for smallpox … which rather made you wonder why he hadn’t gone to somewhere with a well-known medical school, but never mind! He began working with Senhor Benjamin, a local apothecary, and was able to treat John for depression.

Next up, a hate preacher who wanted the Inquisition brought back started whipping up hatred against the Marranos, and it all came out that John’s mother was a Marrana. She suggested that John go to Senhor Benjamin – who was also a Marrano – for Torah lessons, as the only thing she knew about Jewish doctrine or practice was lighting candles on a Friday night. Hooray!! Finally, the candle thing!   But why had we never seen her lighting the candles? Oh well, never mind.

John’s dad and Midnight then went off to Britain, to meet Edward Jenner. See, I knew Midnight should have gone somewhere where there was a medical expert!   However, John’s dad came back alone, and said that Midnight had been killed in an accident.

There was an awful lot of travelling going on, considering that it was wartime!   Then the French invaded and sacked Porto. This was probably the worst moment in Porto’s history. Many of its inhabitants were murdered, raped, or died when a bridge collapsed. But it was all rather skipped over in the book. John’s father died, and two close friends, one of whom died as a result of her injuries, were raped, but somehow the horror of it all didn’t really come across … the focus was more on why John’s dad had stayed in Porto rather than fleeing as his wife and son did.

Fast forward. John’s mum moved to London, to live with her sister-in-law. Britain got an extremely good press in this book, as a nation which both took a lead in the abolition of the slave trade and which was very tolerant towards religious minorities. The “metropolitan elite”, who seem determined on insisting that everything in British history is bad, might want to read this. Although they probably wouldn’t want to read it. John got married and had two kids, but then his wife died. And then Senhor Benjamin told him that Midnight hadn’t died in an accident in Gloucestershire at all, but that John’s dad had found out that he (Midnight) and John’s mum had been having an affair, and had sold him into slavery in Virginia!

OK,that apparently explained why John’s dad had seemed so unconcerned about his own safety: he couldn’t live with the guilt. And so Midnight was, presumably, still alive. And then, re-enter Violeta, now living in New York. It transpired that poor Violeta had been people-trafficked into prostitution in London, in a story which seemed to belong more to the early 21st century than the early 19th century. This was very sad and shocking, but it was all skipped over in a few pages, when surely Violeta’s story deserved its own book. Then, it what was presumably an attempt to try to keep some sort of thread running through the book, we were told that Violeta had become a nanny to the children of a Portuguese Jewish woman living in Newcastle. What?? Were there any Portuguese Jewish women living in Newcastle in the 1820s?! Er, and then she’d ended up in New York.

John then betook himself to America. Despite the fact that Midnight was now known by a different name, and had been sold on from Virginia to South Carolina, and there must have been millions of slaves in the southern states of America at the time, he somehow managed to find the plantation where Midnight was supposed to be. At this point, we went back to the Portuguese Jewish theme, when we were told that lots of Portuguese Marranos had moved to Charleston.

Now that isn’t quite accurate. However, it was an interesting subject to bring into the book, because an often overlooked aspect of the history of the Deep South, and especially of Charleston – the ultimate Southern Rights city, the place where South Carolina declared that it was seceding from the Union, the place where the first shots of the War Between The States were fired, etc etc – is that the prejudice against Jews which, along with prejudice against Catholics, was rife in the upper echelons of Northern society, didn’t apply in the South. Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, was from a Charleston Jewish family. There were many prominent Jewish people in various aspects of Charleston life even before the Revolution. Charleston, in the 1820s, had the highest Jewish population of any city in the United States. And, yes, at that point they were almost all Sephardi … but from/descended from families who’d moved there from London, or London via Amsterdam, rather than actually from Portugal. But, OK, there was that link there.

The narrative then switched from being first person John to being first person Morri – Morri being Midnight’s daughter. Midnight was missing, presumed dead. It later turned out that he’d gone off with a group of Indians (the book said Indians, not Native Americans!). The family and overseer of the plantation on which Morri was living seemed to spend all their time abusing their slaves, and the master and his heir were both murdered in mysterious circumstances but no-one ever found out who’d murdered them. Things were getting rather bonkers by this stage. Morri and some of the others were planning to escape. Then John turned up at the plantation, pretending he wanted to sketch birds, and found out that the owner knew about the plan. Then most of them did manage to escape, assisted by a) John and b) a ship’s captain from Liverpool.

So John and Morri went back to join Violeta in New York, and John’s mum and daughters joined them there too. Then Midnight turned up there too, safe and well, and everyone presumably lived happily ever after.

Too many different themes, and some very tenuous links and distinctly far-fetched storylines. But I suppose you could say that there was a general theme running through it about oppression and trying to overcome it. Really, I think it would have worked better as two separate books, one about Marranos and one about slavery. Or maybe three, because there are very few novels about the Khoi-San people. There was too much going on, and it didn’t really link together that well.  But the individual themes and characters were fascinating.  And I suppose putting them all into one book was pretty ambitious.  Just maybe a bit too ambitious.