I don’t read historical fiction. It just doesn’t hit the right buttons for me. That is, until I read Richard Zimler’s latest novel, The Guardian of the Dawn. As soon as I’d finished reading The Guardian of the Dawn, I read it again. The next thing I did was buy a copy of each of Zimler’s previous novels.
The third instalment of his ‘Sephardic cycle’, following the bestselling The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon and Hunting Midnight, which loosely traces Jewish experiences of persecution through the lives of different branches and generations of the same family. Set in early 17th century Goa, at the time a Portuguese colony, The Guardian of the Dawn is a provocative tale of vindictiveness and revenge. It is also a thumping-good mystery.
Living just outside the boundaries of the Portuguese colony, the Zarco family cautiously adhere to their Jewish traditions and beliefs, avoiding the attention of the Portuguese authorities and the cruel Inquisition. Retold through the voice of Tiago, he and his sister Sofia enjoy a gentle childhood under the care of their loving but troubled father, at times secretly dipping their toes into the Hindu celebrations honoured by their beloved cook, Nupi. The family is torn apart as first their father, and then Ti, are arrested, imprisoned and tortured by the Inquisition. Resisting conversion to New Christianity, Ti serves many years exiled in the prisons of Lisbon. He returns to India to pursue an ingenious, dangerous plan for revenge against those responsible for his exile but his plans, and convictions, disintegrate as it become apparent that the source of betrayal is much closer to home.
Moody, atmospheric and at times ink-black with pain, Zimler’s writing conjures vivid pictures of Portuguese Goa, of imprisonment and of personal devastation, which combine to produce a mystical, exotic mystery with a deeply-rooted sense of place and purpose and one which rewards on many levels. It is a real treat.
The historical mystery genre is littered with derivative, second-rate plots and caustic prose – so much so that it seems misleading to place The Guardian of the Dawn on the same shelf. Guardian of the Dawn has none of these faults: it is historical fiction at its dazzling best.
Guardian of the Dawn was first published by Random House in 2005.
Postscript, 2014. Zimler’s Sephardic cycle books completely changed my views on what historical fiction can be and I have regularly read other books in the genre over the last ten years. Some good, some bad, but had quite reached me like Guardian of the Dawn until I read Karen Maitland’s The Vanishing Witch earlier this year.
Read and reviewed in 2006
© Jessica Mulley 2006, 2014