The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon is a BIG book. (I like big….. yes, okay.) It came into our shop years ago and I took it upstairs to read, and became engrossed. Read it in three nights. Then I put it back in the shop, and when I started writing the Monday Book blog, I couldn’t remember the name!
Just yesterday another copy came into the shop, and I recognized it instantly, grabbed it, and wrote this for y’all.
This is a GOOD read if you like historic epics intertwined with realistic characters. Richard Zimler’s story takes place soon after Lisbon’s 1506 massacre of “New Christians,” when the powder keg of Muslim, Christian, Jewish interaction ignited. For those unfamiliar, in the late 1400s a lot of Jews were living in Portugal, which had proved the most tolerant of the countries available to them. But in 1497(ish) Jews were hauled en masse to Christian baptism fonts and pretty much converted against their will to Christianity.
That should have kept them safe, but the world being what it is, it didn’t. Zimler’s epic picks up at the point where rumblings have started again.
The Last Kabbalist is a fascinating depiction of the interaction between not only these BIG categories of religions, but the smaller divisions and hidden links between them. Subsets of Jews and Muslims and Christians act independently within their religions, following the threads of their own lives: desire for knowledge, compassion, anger, vengeance.
And human hearts are never simple anyway. Berekiah is a young illuminator (an illustrator) who finds his uncle murdered– his uncle who apprenticed him and is the sole of religious dignity, dead with a naked girl beside him. So there’s a mystery, but also Berekiah needs to survive the riots, he’s in love with a girl, and he’s kinda trying to hold his family together.
At times awful in its depictions of violence, always insightful into how people have helped and harmed each other since history was recorded, Kabbalist is a gripping read. You felt like you could see, smell, taste, and feel the terror, hope, and desperate planning of those trying to survive.
A word of warning: don’t start Kabbalist unless you have time to read for awhile. You’re not going to put it down easily.