Thursday, July 28, 2011

Book Review: The Coffee Trader (2003) by David Liss

The Coffee Trader (2003)
David Liss

David Liss is a very gifted writer of historical fiction. His novels offer financial intrigue as well as a taste of Jewish community life in times gone by, in this case in the aftermath of the Spanish Inquisition. The Coffee Trader takes place two generations prior to A Conspiracy of Paper, his first novel.  The story is set among the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam at the time coffee is being introduced to Europeans. With regard to this community, to me it feels delightfully familiar. You see, I read the nonfiction work Rembrandt's Jews (Chicago, 2003) by a noted philosophy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison not all that long ago. I chose this latter book, I confess, on the basis of its scholarly author's excellent name, and I am delighted now to be able to return so soon to this very interesting time and place. As the two books were published in the same year, I doubt whether Liss could have used anything in Rembrandt's Jews for his own research.

As with Liss's other books, there is a convoluted underlying conspiracy that the hero has to unravel before it is too late. The novel's machinations are complex and can't really be anticipated by the reader, at least not by this reader.

The story is told mostly in the third person, but recurring parts of it are related through the memoirs of another character. (This dual approach works well enough here, although in a later book I feel it didn't go quite so smoothly. To wit, in The Whiskey Rebels, I find the dual narration very unsettling. Ambitious, yes, but unsettling.)

The Coffee Trader starts out promisingly enough and allows the reader to relive the experience of that first exquisite cup of coffee. I found myself wishing for some old-fashioned coffee as enticing as the brew described in these pages. The book's ending, though,  I found disheartening and disturbing, a reminder of how one can be betrayed with unintended and even brutal consequences. Ultimately, I think Liss, by mostly avoiding happy endings in his novels, is being true to his somewhat bleak vision of human nature. The question remains, what's a nice Jewish boy like David Liss doing creating such unsavory and sordid characters in the first place? The answer just might be that he's being honest.


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