Second-novelist Liss moves from 18th-century London to the mercantile culture of mid-17th-century Amsterdam.
The protagonist is Miguel Lienzo (a peripheral figure in A Conspiracy of Paper, 2000), a Portuguese Jew who has found both escape from the Inquisition and multiple opportunities for import and trade in the thriving Dutch metropolis. When one of Miguel’s clients, smoldering widow Geertruid Damhuis, introduces him to the pleasures of coffee, he senses an opportunity—and soon conceives a scheme (to be funded by Geertruid) to import the exotic new beverage, artificially manipulate its value, and realize a handsome profit. It’s a heady premise, and Liss handles both its details and the period’s thick ambience with considerable skill. But the narrative lags. Virtually every scene is clogged with “backstory”—lengthy explanatory flashbacks that focus on both Miguel’s personal history and his relationships with other major characters. These latter include: Miguel’s pinch-penny brother Daniel and his pregnant wife Hannah (a “secret Catholic,” secretly attracted to her brother-in-law); the vindictive specter of Joachim Waagener, a trader ruined by the collapse in sugar prices that also took Miguel’s first fortune; Solomon Parido, Lienzo’s declared enemy ever since Miguel eluded a contract to wed his daughter; and Alonzo Alferonda, a wily moneylender whose interpolated “Factual and Revealing Memoirs” offer an indeed revealing outside perspective on Miguel’s experiences. There are several centers of real interest: Miguel’s command appearance before the Ma’amad, the regulatory council that oversees Jews’ activities in this stranger country; a vivid climax at the Amsterdam Exchange, where Miguel turns tables on would-be betrayers and rivals; and back-alley intrigues involving a pair of variously employed servants. But the story is too long, and its tensions ebb and flow with frustrating regularity.
A vigorous display of the author’s mastery of his material, though it lacks the novelty and strong narrative drive of its terrific predecessor.