No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

#8: Incantation -- Alice Hoffman

This novel, set in Spain in 1500, is the story of Estrella deMadrigal, also known as Raven, also known as Esther.

There's a lot of story in those names. Estrella is the only daughter of Abra, a respectable widow who uses plants to make dyes and herbal remedies. Abra's other child, Luis, is studying to be a priest. Estrella and Abra live with Abra's parents Jose and Carmen.

'Raven' is Estrella's childhood nickname, bestowed for her dark prettiness. Her friend and next-door-neighbour, Catalina, is nicknamed Crow. Estrella thinks they look like sisters, but Catalina is jealous of Estrella's beauty -- especially now that Catalina's cousin Andres is taking an interest in Estrella instead of Catalina herself. When Catalina tries to keep a string of pearls -- a precious gift from Estrella's grandmother -- that Estrella has lent her as a token of friendship, it's Andres who intervenes. Perhaps it's that intervention that starts the landslide.

And 'Esther' is Estrella's secret name, her name within the family, just as her grandmother Carmen's real name is Sarah. It's also the name of Queen Esther, who was forced to pretend to be what she was not to save her people.

Estrella says, early in the book, that her family are Christians. But the details accumulate slowly and deceptively: the candles lit on Friday nights, the secret names, her grandfather's teaching that always takes place at night ... Gradually we realise what the townspeople (and specifically the neighbours) already suspect: that Estrella's family are Marranos, Jews who judaise (not a word I'd encountered before) despite having converted.

And, for a half-share of the Marrano's estate, friend will betray friend to the court -- that is, the Inquisition.

This is a novel about fear, hatred and religious intolerance. About the horrors (graphically and vividly portrayed) that have been perpetrated in the name of religion, and about surviving them.
The monster from deep inside the earth was crawling along the Plaza. The monster had been formed from burning books and smoke and hate, but it had grown so big and strong, it could reach up and ring the bell in the chapel of the old Duke's house. The bell kept ringing and ringing, and the people kept screaming, and there was no way to stop it.

Abra teaches her daughter that it's impossible to argue with evil, or to disprove the ridiculous. Jose, her grandfather, tells her that running away will solve nothing: but Estrella comes to believe that 'a Jew can never be attached to a place. The rules always change, and we always lose.' By fleeing the town, she lives to tell her tale: to carry on and be strong, rather than 'defying whatever days were granted to me, throwing them away as though I were a helpmate to those who wanted to destroy us'.

Estrella's grandfather has also begun to teach her the secrets of the Kabbalah, the ten gates of the garden of wisdom. He expresses them as 'Crown, Wisdom, Intelligence, Love, Judgement, Compassion, Endurance, Majesty, Foundation of the World, Kingdom'. But Estrella -- who dreams of gates to that garden, gates made of bones, of love, of feathers -- names them differently: 'Ashes, Bones, Grass, Heart, Stone, Love, Sorrow, Blood, Earth, Sky'. The structure of Incantation reflects that Kabbalah, though not heavy-handedly: I need to reread again to pick up the nuance of each chapter.

A harrowing read but also full of beautiful images: the shades of blue in Abra's dyes, the hawk in the olive tree, the feel of cool pearls against the skin.

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