4 out of 4 stars
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Marcia Riman Selz is a debut author whose novel transports us to a troubled Spain during the 15th century. The story takes place around the time of the Alhambra Decree issued by Isabella I of Castile and Ferdinand II of Aragon, two monarchs who ordered all practicing Jews to leave from their Spanish territories by the end of July 1492.
The story in At Vitoria gives us a glimpse into the day-to-day existence of the Jewish Crevago family of shoemakers. Vidal Crevago, who travels across the country to deliver handcrafted shoes to customers, learns that Jews in other areas are forced to convert to Christianity; however, even those who converted are not spared from humiliation or death. Vidal is trying in vain to convince his family to move to safer places, but Vitoria is a peaceful town that has yet to be touched by evil. When the new decree is approved, the Crevago family members have to take an almost impossible decision if they want to survive.
The book grabbed me from the moment the Crevagos were heatedly discussing a particular cemetery. The argument made me curious to learn the fate of said resting place. By the end of the story, however, I’ve learned more than expected about a dark time in Europe’s history. I knew about the Inquisition and its persecution of witches, but I was unaware that Jewish people had a similar fate during those early years in Europe.
Surprisingly, this story didn’t have a central character. It lacked a main hero you could sympathize with or root for. Instead, the author gave us an entire family with diverse members going about their lives and dealing in their own ways with the crisis that fell upon them. I enjoyed the book a lot; however, the author’s take on the characters left me slightly distanced from them. I couldn’t relate very much to any of them, although they were all quite sympathetic. Initially, I rooted for Vidal Crevago, but then the author focused on someone else in the family, and Vidal no longer appeared until later in the story.
As for the story itself, it was a dark tale that had its bright and uplifting moments. It was written quite well, and it had a large number of details about the diverse Jewish customs of the times. For example, the Seder ritual was described on several pages with Vidal telling the entire story of the Exodus of the Jews. By reading this book, I’ve learned quite a lot - maybe too much - about the various Jewish religious customs and traditions. What elevated the story in my mind was the end, which had a resolution I didn’t see coming. I liked that the loose ends were tied up in the last chapter.
It surprised me to learn that this was the author’s first novel. The story flows well, and the sentences don’t sound choppy at all (which is a flaw visible in the books of most first-time novelists). I didn’t find many grammatical errors, so the book was professionally edited. A few missing or wrongly placed commas, a missing quotation mark, and an added typographical error formed the bulk of the mistakes in the book.
Thus, I give At Vitoria 4 out of 4 stars even though I had a few minor issues with the characters and the overly detailed descriptions. For a debut novel, it was too well-crafted to penalize it. I recommend it to lovers of European historical fiction, and to people who delight in reading meticulous details about the traditions of other cultures. There is one mention of rape in the book, so sensitive people should be aware of it.
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