In cultural journalist Hantover’s first novel, a young Venetian Jew, recently widowed, spends 1598-99 in the Burmese kingdom of Pegu, acquiring gems and rediscovering, by way of an unusual cultural custom, his ability to love.
Abraham’s business in lush, lovely Pegu begins auspiciously. The merchandise is exquisite, and he’s assigned a savvy broker who knows a smattering of Italian; despite cultural and religious differences, they embark on a friendship. But trouble lurks. The king is a cruel and impetuous tyrant, for one thing. More immediately, Abraham discovers a native custom he finds bizarre and repellent: The Peguans believe that a foreigner should take the maidenhead of the region’s brides-to-be. Worse, Abraham learns this only when a young woman, perfumed with the finest unguents, arrives on his doorstep. He finally relents when he realizes that performing this “service” is necessary if his business is to flourish—it may even help preserve his life. Abraham subsequently takes a path that leads to his falling in love with tragedy-touched Mya, who is shunned when her betrothed dies in prenuptial revelry while she’s with Abraham. Hantover’s best and subtlest move is the way he uses Abraham’s devout faith to lend the story plausibility. As a Jew in Italy, Abraham is subject to appalling restrictions, forced, for example, to wear a yellow hat as a badge of foreignness; he’s an exile at home, himself despised and shunned, and Pegu’s relative freedoms have, therefore, great appeal. But despite that and a vivid setting, the book bogs down in its (predictably) treacly and (predictably) tragic second half.
Appealing but thin.