This Tale of Mystery Begins With a Corpse –– But Ends With a Twist

By Lev Raphael

Published July 16, 2004, issue of July 16, 2004.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Lev Raphael’s latest novel, “The German Money,” is a Book Sense 76 pick.

The Outcast Dove

By Sharan Newman

Forge, 429 pp, $25.95.

—-

In mysteries it’s a cliché to introduce a corpse on the first page. In her new book, Sharan Newman seems to drearily fulfill that expectation, offering us a dead body in its first line. Jews traveling from Paris to southern France and Spain on business in the middle of the 12th century discover the corpse. After a page, however, we learn that this isn’t a human body, but rather a deer that’s been killed by an unseen hunter.

Some readers may feel cheated or disappointed by the “revelation,” but others may find it a wry twist on the journey into terra incognita, for this is, after all, a mystery. Newman offers fascinating twists on the notions of deception, danger and mutability throughout “The Outcast Dove,” particularly as they affect the main character, a merchant named Solomon, and his family.

Solomon’s uncle, Hubert, survived a Crusader pogrom. He was baptized and raised as a Christian. Late in his life, Hubert returned to Judaism, changing his name to Chaim and becoming “an ascetic who spends every hour of the day in study and prayer” — a remarkable transformation for a man who had to start learning the Aleph-Bet with little children.

Solomon’s father, Jacob, on the other hand, abandoned Judaism and turned into Brother James, a Jew-hating monk who persecuted not only Jewish strangers, but also his own son. James is such a fascinating character that at times, one wishes the book had been told solely through his perspective rather than through quickly shifting multiple points of view. He spends half his life “trying to decipher the word of the Lord, to find the message that would make sense of this world” and “the second half in rejection of that search, trying instead to open his heart to God’s will and accept it without question.” Under stress, the Psalms come to him in Hebrew rather than in Latin, while particularly Jewish gestures emerge without his awareness. And in one powerful scene, when another monk hurriedly awakens him, he cries out, “Adonai!” in fear and surprise. At Easter he revels in being a “participant in the divine mystery” where once he was just another Jew “forced to listen to hours of sermons exhorting them to convert,” but he remains tormented by his past all the same.

Amid rumors that some new danger awaits Jews in Provence during Easter-time, Solomon and Hubert cross paths with Brother James in Toulouse — a town more liberal than Paris because Jews can be leaders there, but one where they still never will be accepted entirely.

After a murder, a robbery and a strange disappearance, Solomon signs on to help rescue a Jewish girl who’s been captured by Christians in Spain and sold to monks as a slave. Meanwhile, James also heads to Spain to ransom Christians seized by Muslims. Sharing the protection of knights, one of who is an old enemy of Solomon’s, the two parties head to Spain more than halfway through the slow-paced novel, and murder stalks their journey.

Characters and settings in this mystery rarely are described with any specificity, and the lack of visual detail is harmful to the author’s enterprise of re-creating this era of Jewish life in particular, and medieval life in general. When Solomon briefly visits Carcassonne, its fabulous 12th-century fortifications are never mentioned. He is, after all, a traveler, and not at all jaded, so why shouldn’t he remark on what he sees, especially as it’s all so different from his home of Paris? And surely he would react more to the citadel of Narbonne than to note that its walls were “massive.”

Frequent point of view changes vitiate the book’s impact, and words that are apparently medieval French, Provencal or Basque appear in the text without any helpful glossary for reference. Likewise, the various canonical hours of prayer are mentioned without explanation, as if readers know what times they represent. The author notes she had so much research material that it had to be put on her Web site, but the book and most of its characters never really come alive.

“The Outcast Dove” does, however, manage to convey the sense of danger and peripherality that many Jews would have experienced during this era of growing peril in Western Europe. Forced conversions and death followed King Louis of France’s Crusade to the Holy Land, and many Jews were displaced in Spain by battles between Christians and Muslims — or Edomites and Ishmaelites, as the Jewish characters colorfully call them.

As Solomon notes with asperity: “We live in two worlds, feeling safe in neither.”






Find us on Facebook!
  • This is what the rockets over Israel and Gaza look like from space:
  • "Israel should not let captives languish or corpses rot. It should do everything in its power to recover people and bodies. Jewish law places a premium on pidyon shvuyim, “the redemption of captives,” and proper burial. But not when the price will lead to more death and more kidnappings." Do you agree?
  • Slate.com's Allison Benedikt wrote that Taglit-Birthright Israel is partly to blame for the death of American IDF volunteer Max Steinberg. This is why she's wrong:
  • Israeli soldiers want you to buy them socks. And snacks. And backpacks. And underwear. And pizza. So claim dozens of fundraising campaigns launched by American Jewish and Israeli charities since the start of the current wave of crisis and conflict in Israel and Gaza.
  • The sign reads: “Dogs are allowed in this establishment but Zionists are not under any circumstances.”
  • Is Twitter Israel's new worst enemy?
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.