Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Hunting Midnight - Richard Zimler

At the dawn of the nineteenth century in Portugal, John Zarco Stewart is an impish child of hotheaded emotions and playful inquisitiveness, the unwitting inheritor of a faith shrouded in three hundred years of secrecy--for the Jews of the Iberian Peninsula have been in hiding since the Inquisition. But a season of loss and bitter discovery brings his innocence to an abrupt end. It is only the ministrations of a magical stranger, brought to Porto by his seafaring father, that restore his safety: Midnight, an African healer and freed slave, the man who will become John's greatest friend and determine the course of his destiny.When Napoleon's armies invade Portugal, violence again intrudes on John's fragile peace, and seals his passage into adulthood with another devastating loss. But from the wreckage comes revelation as he uncovers truths and lies hidden by the people he loved and trusted most, and discovers the act of unspeakable betrayal that destroyed his family--and his faith. And so his shattering quest begins as he travels to America, to hunt for hope in a land shackled by unforgivable sin.

This was my first book by Richard Zimler and I must say he does approach interesting and original subjects.

Hunting Midnight tells the story of John Zarco Stewart, a Portuguese boy of Scottish and Portuguese descent and of Jewish heritage who was born in Porto where he grew up before travelling to England and America. Set in the 18th and 19th centuries it deals with such different subjects as the French invasions and slavery.

In the beginning, John meets Daniel and the two boys will soon become fast friends. Zimler is very good at describing evocative imagery and one can almost see the preacher, who John call necromancer, that scares him by calling him a Jew, and later the market where exotic birds are sold in miserable conditions and where the two make a rescue attempt replacing the real birds by wooden substitutes. In the aftermath of this event, they meet Violeta, who will become the third part in their friendship and while telling of their adventures Zimler tackles very different subjects like the hidden Jewish faith, the inquisition, Violeta’s abuse at the hands of her family and the difficult life conditions shared by many told.

John’s life changes drastically when Daniel dies and he falls ill believing himself guilty. To restore his health his father brings home Midnight, a black man knowledgeable in healing herbs but also with a very special life’s philosophy. He soon becomes John’s best friend and mentor.

When Midnight disappears after travelling with John’s father to England and John later finds out he has been sold as a slave, he starts a voyage that will take him from Porto to London and then to New York and the American south. The second half of the book introduces a second main character as it is partially narrated by Midnight’s daughter Morri. Morri tells of her life as a slave in a plantation in Charleston and of her father’s life there and disappearance and writes her observations on the differences between the black and the white man.

This is the story of John and his growth but also a story of love and tolerance. There is the love between friends, between family members, husband and wife and between fellow men. There is the respect and tolerance for different religions and beliefs and a reflexion on the status of women in society.

I did have some trouble getting into the story as it is a bit slow paced in the beginning but the second half was a page turner. Considering all the interesting themes and details included, the richness and the importance of themes focused I don’t hesitate to recommend this novel.

Grade: 4/5

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