From Zimler (The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon, 1998, etc.): an earnest and deliberate thriller of family secrets, with historical trappings.
In Porto, Portugal, circa 1800 (the Spanish Inquisition holding sway), young narrator John Zarco Stewart finds a cure for his shyness and childhood boredom in the person of Daniel, a street urchin and mischief-maker a couple of years his senior. The two have a series of small, dicey adventures. Although he doesn’t understand the full implications, John learns during this time that his family is Jewish: a fact that explains their isolation from some of the community, as well as the lack of religious observance in the home. The camaraderie of Daniel and John takes an innocently romantic turn when they include a sad young girl named Violeta in their escapades. Bliss is short-lived, however, when the boys find Violeta, bruised and barely breathing, in a woodland thicket. She claims she simply fell, but the boys suspect an assault—a suspicion confirmed by rumors of violence and abuse by Violeta’s uncle. Daniel drowns in a mishap that John blames himself for, and Violeta is abruptly whisked out of town by her family. Papa rouses John from the doldrums with a surprise guest, the Midnight of the title, an African bushman who becomes his constant companion and teacher. Tragedy strikes here, too, when Midnight is shot by a local landowner for poaching. John grows up, father dies, mother moves to England. John becomes an artisan, marries the docile Francisca, and fathers a handful of children. Then, out of the blue, a secret from the past changes the course of John’s life—and of the story. He travels to America, his odyssey counterpointed with that of a young American black woman named Morri. These two eventually meet, wrapping up several loose ends.
Florid prose but little depth. The adventure and mystery of the second half here hold much more interest than John’s coming-of-age.