Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Signs and wonders

For signs against God, the liturgy says, the Day of Atonement atones, but for sins of one man against another, the Day of Atonement does not atone until they have made peace with each other.
David Liss, The Day of Atonement

Each of us sees numerous rainbows in our lifetimes. Sometimes one of those rainbows coincides with something momentous, the birth of a child, a graveside service for a loved one, a wedding, a career change, whatever. We may feel inclined to view the rainbow as a sign of hope or a sign of God's blessing. Is that really the case or is it more a matter of millions of people seeing rainbows every day and some of those sightings being bound to happen at key moments in people's lives?

The Day of Atonement, the David Liss novel published in 2014, poses this kind of question, but instead of a rainbow, the possible sign takes the form of a great earthquake, the one that actually did destroy Lisbon in 1755.

Ten years previously a New Christian boy had escaped Lisbon and the Inquisition that claimed the lives of his parents. New Christian was the term for Jews forced to convert to Catholicism. New Christians, at least those with enough wealth to be coveted by the Church, were often imprisoned, tortured and sometimes killed.

Now Sebastian Foxx, posing as an English businessman, returns to Lisbon to get his revenge. He plans to kill the priest responsible for his parents' deaths, to settle some other old scores and to right a few wrongs. He also hopes the girl he has never stopped loving loves him, too, and will be willing to run away with him. No sooner does he return than surprises begin occurring. Friends turn out to be enemies, and enemies become unlikely allies.

The biggest surprise, however, is that earthquake, which changes everything, coming as it does at the very moment he is about to kill the evil priest. Is the quake a sign of God's judgment against the Catholic Church or against the entire city of Lisbon for tolerating and cooperating with the Inquisition for so long? Is God using it to remind Sebastian Foxx that revenge and atonement are not really the same thing? Or is it something that just happens at the same time and in the same place many other things are happening?

With earthquakes, as with rainbows and also as with novels, we are each free to interpret them as we wish. The Day of Atonement is a fine historical thriller, but it also gives its readers some interesting questions to ponder.

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