Beyond the Ghetto Gates: A Novel

Written by Michelle Cameron
Review by Fiona Alison

Shortly after being appointed Commander-in-chief in 1796, Napoleon invades Italy and forces the withdrawal of Austria. When he reaches the city of Ancona, he orders his men to destroy the gates to the Jewish ghetto, which keep the inhabitants from freely coming and going into the city. Mirelle, a young Jewish woman, balances the books at her father’s ketubah workshop in the ghetto until she is forbidden by the rabbi, who insists she must marry. Equally devoted to her religion and her work, Mirelle reluctantly complies, but when her father is injured in a riot, she returns to support the artists and keep the accounts tallied. Invited to visit Venice by her best friend, Dolce, she meets two of Napoleon’s young soldiers, one a Jewish cousin and the other a Catholic who falls in love with her. Despite Mirelle’s proposed betrothal to Dolce’s widowed father, Dolce is not prepared to share her father’s affection and wealth with anyone, not even her best friend, and does her best to thwart the marriage plans and push the naïve Mirelle into the soldier’s arms.

Cameron’s novel dwells on religious fervour, fanaticism, prejudice and that elusive disparity between religions. Ancona is besieged by violence, incited by zealots who believe the Jews are hiding weapons to support Napoleon’s army. Mirelle suffers losses during the riots and argues with her conscience daily as she becomes more attracted to the poor Catholic soldier, when she is expected to agree to Dolce’s father’s offer of marriage. Cameron has done thorough research into Napoleon’s Italian campaign, blending history with fiction in a credible way. The descriptions of the ketubot – exquisitely detailed Jewish marriage certificates – are fascinating, and Cameron’s evocation of the workshop and its artists is intriguing. The novel ends with an unexpected outcome and speaks of hopeful new beginnings for Mirelle.