Thursday, April 22, 2010

The Books of Rachel by Joel Gross

(In which we are all brothers.)
***

I saw the book just before heading for the counter to pay for the books I have chosen. It was hardbound; protected by a jacket whose edges were already torn and frayed. If it’s the artistic vines and flowers on the jacket or the name in the title that got me interested, I don’t know. But I bought it for the promise of a good read that the blurb gave as well as its incredibly cheap cost.

And the promise was never broken. The book is excellent.

The Books of Rachel is a collection of stories from a Jewish clan that spanned 50 decades. Alongside the expansion of a family is the expansion of their wealth brought by the diamond industry they control as well as tthe passing of the legacy of a diamond – Rachel’s diamond.

The birth of a girl after the death of a Rachel means a new heiress of the diamond and the name. Each Rachel is a heroine – a strong and virtuous woman amidst the cruelty of the world to her people. The novel relates how each Rachel defended her philosophies, her love and dreams. It tells how she fought for her family and brothers and for her being a Jewess.

Chapter One: Rachel of Zaragoza

When Judah Cuheno saw the diamond in its dull covering, he already knew the beauty it possesses and decided to cut and polish it himself as a present for his sister Rachel. But before he even completed the task, Spain has already fallen to The Inquisition. And Rachel, in the attempts of saving the man who protected her was executed as well as the some other members of their wealthy clan.

Chapter Two: Rachel of Venice

With the kind of life that she experienced in the ghetto of Venice, Rachel Cuheno couldn’t imagine that she might have belonged to a rich family in Spain. His father loathed the story. They were never going to be a part of that clan. Or better yet, it is better to think that his possible connection with Judah Cuheno of Spain is nothing but a myth. Rachel’s family lived in so much poverty that her sister accepted the offer of being a courtesan in the palace and left her with her gambler of a father and her mad mother.

But fate has other plans. A distant relative discovered Rachel and her sister and brought them to the place where they belong.

Chapter Three: Rachel of Berlin

If the other bearers of her name were proud of being Jewish, Frau Rachel Meier wasn’t. She wished she had descended from artists with a Christian name. She treated the thought of being brothers with filthy beggars and superstitious peasants with utmost repugnance. Not until she fell in love that she willed to face danger, even death. And she decided that whatever happens, she will never deny her true identity – she is Rachel and she is a Jew.

Chapter Four: Rachel of Jerusalem

What seemed as a religious pilgrimage turned to be an intense eye opener for Mademoiselle Rachel Cohn. She sees the poverty and desperation of Jews in the Holy Land, breathed the fetid air of the city and heard tales of fighting and death. She wouldn’t want to go back to her privileged life and leave her people to suffer. She intended to improve their lives and she is willing to do everything she can to help - even if it means fighting against death.

Chapter Five: Rachel of England

The seventeen-year-old Rachel Kane was an impulsive young girl who had people throwing their hands up in exhaustion from her inappropriate remarks and thoughtless speech. To them she was just another spoiled kid. Yet she knew more than wanting to be a painter and read. She fell in love with a man who lost his mother because of a war that is starting to take place. She married herself to him before he died. But he didn’t die in vain. With his death was the death of a Nazi economist. Rachel went to Vienna to help save the Jews but failed. On the way to the concentration camp in Auschwitz, she was shot dead.

***

When I found out that the author spent more than a year to research this novel, I felt a huge respect for him. And the respect is heightened after I finished the novel. The way he wrote the story made me feel like I belong to the era being presented. It blended history and fiction very well that I almost thought the entire novel really happened.

Another interesting factor is the force that love brings. The five Rachels in the novel were all young, thus incapable to fully comprehend what was happening, or why they were being persecuted. But after they experience love, not only in the romantic context but also humanistic, they understood that they have to make an action. They understood that not only the Jews need fair treatment and freedom – everyone does.

***

I have once read that reading history means understanding life using natural light; reading literature is understanding life with an artificial light. The difference is that you can direct an artificial light anywhere.

I don’t know how to describe reading historical fiction, though. Could it be maneuvering an artificial light in a garden one beautiful afternoon?



Currently reading:

Last Voyage of the Valentina by Santa Montefiore