The Day of Atonement

Random House  2014


David Liss, author of A Conspiracy of Paper, The Coffee Trader, and other highly regarded works of fiction, has written a gripping novel set in eighteenth century Portugal. The protagonist, Sebastião Raposa, is a descendant of New Christians who were forced to convert from Judaism in the late fifteenth century. Centuries later, his parents are imprisoned and executed by the Inquisition under the accusation of practicing Judaism, and Raposa flees to England. There, he changes his name to Sebastian Foxx and converts to Judaism, an act of defiance motivated by his hatred of the Inquisition. Soon after, Raposa returns to Lisbon, determined to take revenge on the priest responsible for the deaths of his parents. While in Lisbon, he steals from thieves, executes cutthroats, and hunts down the man who murdered his parents.

As the story progresses, Raposa is drawn to the teachings of Judaism, particularly the concept of atonement, which is manifested most notably on the Day of Atonement. On this day, individuals must seek forgiveness from each other prior to asking it of God. This idea conflicts with the assumption of the Christian Inquisitors that the motives and remorse of the victims of the Inquisition were irrelevant, and that they must suffer for their sins. Raposa recognizes that the revenge he sought in Lisbon had transformed him into a violent and bitter vigilante, and that in this way he was hardly better than the Inquisitors. Much of the novel is spent on Liss’s speculations on the nature of forgiveness, the difficulty of distinguishing between the wicked and the good, and the need to understand the motives of individuals before judging their actions. Raposa ultimately realizes that while he may not always be able to control his emotions, he is responsible for his actions, and must therefore seek forgiveness from those he had harmed through his vigilantism; only afterward can he rebuild a new life in England and leave his animosity behind.

Readers grappling with the emotional and religious aspects of their own identity will empathize with Raposa’s personal struggles to overcome his fixation with his past, and will be fascinated by Liss’s riveting rendition of eighteenth-century Lisbon caught in its medieval past at the onset of the modern age.

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