The Day of Atonement

Written by David Liss
Review by Cecelia Holland

Lisbon before the earthquake of 1755 was one of the major commercial centers of Europe, an ancient city of close, cobbled streets and rambling palaces along the river shore. Here David Liss has set his novel of revenge and redemption. Sebastião Raposa, who fled Lisbon as a boy moments before his parents were turned in to the Inquisition, returns as Sebastian Foxx to find justice. As soon as he arrives, of course, he is swept up in intrigues, all leading to the great jolting climax, when he faces the ultimate choice of all revengers.

The work of reconstructing a city of the past lures all historical writers, and Liss does a fine job of bringing that Lisbon to life. Of the Alfama, the old Arab district, he writes of “the odors of food from the homes of Africans and Brazilians and Saracens. People spoke in a half dozen languages. The wild dogs never ceased their barking. And the singing – everywhere they sang their dark and gloomy songs in a hodgepodge of languages, bemoaning their fate, their fado.” (p. 83)

The story itself and his characters are less successful. He never seems too close with events, watching from a comfortable distance, and the pace is too sedate for a thriller. His The Coffee Trader, set in Amsterdam, is livelier and more fun.