Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover

In The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover, a young Jewish gem merchant, Abraham, travels from his home in the ghetto of Venice in 1598 to Pegu -- a city in Myanmar (formerly Burma) that is now known as Bago. Orphaned during the plague, Abraham is taken in by his uncle, and it is for his uncle that he is making the trip.

In Pegu, Abraham quickly becomes friends with his broker, Win, and in letters to his cousin Joseph, Abraham details the people and culture of this foreign land. During his year-long stay in Pegu, Abraham does not have to wear the clothes that identify him as a Jew, and outside the confines of the ghetto, he feels free. However, as a foreign trader, Abraham is expected to perform certain duties -- duties that our culture would not accept or understand. I won't tell you what Abraham is asked to do, but I will mention that it challenges his faith. He is worried that if he gives in to the demands of the Peguans, he will offend God. But Win tells him that if he does not do what he has been asked to do, he will offend the king and ruin his chances of business success.

It is this duty to the Peguans that brings Mya into Abraham's life. Mya's narrative breaks up the monotony of Abraham's letters to Joseph, providing glimpses of Pegu's culture from the point of view of a native Peguan and offering another dimension to Abraham and Mya's love story. While other traders take temporary wives -- whose status is elevated when the trader goes home because of the treasures he leaves behind -- Abraham -- a widower whose wife and baby died in childbirth -- has no desire to let Mya go but is uncertain whether he will be allowed to take her with him.

There is a lot going on in The Jewel Trader of Pegu, and Abraham's letters detail the jewel trade, his travels, his deep discussions with Win about religion and reincarnation, the social and political unrest that threatens to turn into all-out war, and the customs and beliefs of the Peguans. Abraham's letters are philosophical, and by the end of the book, you can see how his relationships with Mya and Win and his experiences in Pegu change his outlook on life and his opinions of human nature.

I loved the flow of Hantover's writing. The character of Abraham is well developed, and his letters back home are eloquent. He is a quiet man who does a lot of thinking, and Hantover does a wonderful job bringing Abraham's thoughts to life in a captivating narrative. Here's one of my favorite passages:

I wonder if this way is forever set, if we cannot make ourselves more than we were born to be. The words I write are not in the pen before I pick it up. Who is to say that the path is in my feet before I take a step? Forgive these late-night meanderings. Perhaps my journey taken reluctantly may lead me as far inward as it has outward across oceans and desert. Perhaps I may return to Venice a better cartographer of my soul than if I had remained. (page 39)
At just over 200 pages, The Jewel Trader of Pegu is a quick read. But it is a book to be savored in small bites, listening closely to Abraham's musings and watching for the changes that occur. Reading large chunks of it at one time was a bit tiring, as the book is mostly a one-sided discussion. Still, I enjoy reading epistolary novels and stories about different cultures, and what grabbed my attention most was Abraham and Mya's love for one another. They were from two different worlds and subscribed to different religious beliefs, but this did not put a damper on their love or prevent them from truly respecting one another. It's not a light read, and it's definitely more character-driven than plot-driven, but I enjoyed it and all the thinking it made me do.

The paperback I read contained an interview with Hantover and a blurb about his research and the story behind the book, which really enhanced my understanding of it. You can read an excerpt of The Jewel Trader of Pegu here.

The Jewel Trader of Pegu also was reviewed by:

Linus's Blanket
Devourer of Books
Booking Mama

If I missed your link, please let me know in the comments.

Disclosure:  I received a free copy of The Jewel Trader of Pegu from HarperCollins for review purposes.


Serena said...

from your review, it sounds like this novel should be longer than 200 pages...sounds good.

Susan Helene Gottfried said...

I want to present this one to my book club, too. You find the greatest books for my book club -- be careful, or I'll make you an honorary member!

Jeannie said...

I love to read books about culture too, Anna. This sounds very intriguing. :)

Nicole (Linus's Blanket) said...

I read this one slowly as well and really savored the language. There was a lot packed in there Serena.

Great review Anna

Staci said...

Call me crazy but I like the fact that this made you think and it was less than 200 pages...sounds like my kind of book, short and to the point!! Great review!!

S. Krishna said...

I'm glad you enjoyed this one. I definitely want to read it at some point!

Belle said...

That is a beautiful quote. This sounds like a wonderfully-written novel.

Blodeuedd said...

I do think it sounds good, and love your review. But to be read in small pieces, perhaps I'd enjoy it then or it wouldn't be the book for me.
Still 200 pages, nothing at all :)

Jo said...

This sounds interesting. But I do like things with a philosophical angle.

Anna said...

Serena: You know, I actually think it was just the right length. Hantover didn't leave me feeling like I needed more.

Susan: Thanks! Let me know if your book club likes the idea.

Jeannie: I think you'd like this one.

Nicole: Thanks!

Bermudaonion: It really was. The more I think about the book in the days since I finished it, the more I like it.

Staci: Thanks!

S. Krishna: I definitely think you should check it out. It's different from the other historical fiction books I've read, and I think that's one of the reasons I liked it so much.

Belle: There were a lot of quotes like that, so it was hard to choose my favorite.

Blodeuedd: It took me a few pages to get into the style and structure, but after that it was smooth sailing!

Jo: I sometimes have a hard time with philosophical stuff, but this one worked for me.