A priceless constellation of gems finds its way from medieval Burgundy to Victorian London in Britisher Hill’s (Underground, not reviewed) tortuous and exacting historical saga.
Katharine Sterne is a contemporary Englishwoman of mysterious means on the trail of the illusive, once-famous jewel cluster first commission by Duke John the Fearless of Burgundy and called the Three Brethren. Set with three balas rubies, pearls, and a central diamond, the Three Brothers passed among European royalty to raise money for armies until bought by the Tudors; it became “the greatest of the English Crown Jewels” before it was broken up and scattered across the continents. Sterne, traveling alone and with only a few stones of her own to finance her way, patiently but single-mindedly sifts through the layers of the jewels’ history, which take her from Turkey to London to Japan. Meanwhile, Hill illuminates for his readers the journey of the rubies and central diamond as they returned by the mid-1800s to their starting point, Baghdad, where two peasant Jewish brothers, Salman and Daniel Levy, find them in a ceramic jar. Hill seems fascinated by his intricate, archived material, as he does with gems and their terminology, and he strives valiantly through the first-person voice of restless, transient Katharine to convey this obsession. Prudently and most effectively, he dramatizes exciting historical episodes, such as the moment when the two lapidary brothers are presented to young Queen Victoria, who happens to be wearing the same stones they were cheated into selling.
Katharine is compelling, but the narrative is long, ornate in style, and infinitely faceted. Still, richly worthwhile for just the right kind of sophisticated reader.