This novel is the story of Vigdis Adelaïs, a young woman from a prosperous Christian family in medieval France who converts to Judaism and must resolve her dual identity, both internally and externally. In another sense it is the journey itself, which Stefan Hertmans describes with emotionally charged language as he takes his own pilgrimage in her footsteps, noting the evolution of the landscape. Some of these changes are literal, such as the shift in buildings and structures of towns; others are more spiritual, such as the areas Jews once inhabited but no longer have any physical presence in. The author often catches a glimpse of Vigdis in the clothing or hair of a modern woman, always seemingly just out of reach.
This sense of searching for something so close, but yet seemingly unattainable, is a major theme of the novel; whether it’s being a Jew seeking safety and acceptance, a woman seeking a place to call home and people to call family, a family seeking reconnection with a runaway soul, or a person seeking spiritual understanding and enlightenment in the religion and culture they were raised in. The theme of never being able to grasp what you most desire weighs heavily in this text and in the physical expedition and emotional evolution of the characters.
Hertmans doesn’t delve into character development; he applies his imagination very much to external events and surroundings. He speculates about what his characters think, but is careful not to put words in their mouths most of the time. This isn’t to say that his characters lack development but there is a distance in place out of respect for history and the real people this story represents; Hertmans narrates the actions and feelings consistent with texts from the fragments of the Cairo Geniza, with some creative license here and there. This serves to create a rich landscape throughout the novel; one feels as if one can view the scene and players, and understand their logic and perspective.
The Convert is an adventure through history, laced with tragedy, and a powerful romance that defies the ages. It’s easy to understand Hertmans’s fascination with Vigdis and her journey, and readers will likely also find themselves swept up in the fateful tide of her story.
Rebecca Zaretsky works at a synagogue as the Youth & Family Education & Program Coordinator. She has a Bachelor’s degree in the study of Humanities, primarily visual arts and literature.