Set in fifteenth century Spain, The Heretic by Lewis Weinstein tells the story of a converso Christian who rediscovers his Jewish roots, with dire consequences. Steeped in late medieval culture, the novel immerses the reader in a world of religious intolerance and cross-cultural cooperation.
Mr. Weinstein clearly did a wealth of research and manages to weave most of it in skillfully. His characters, both fictional and historical, are vital living beings, well motivated, true-to-life and, more importantly, true to the period. Gabriel Catalan, his wife Pilar, their son Tomas and daughter-in-law Esther, shine through the book, confronting their past and fighting for a future for their family.
Set against the turbulent period in Spanish history just prior to the establishment of the Spanish Inquisition, the story follows Gabriel's quest to preserve the great works of Judaism using the newly invented printing press. He and his family risk their lives to keep their activities hidden from the Church authorities, most notably from the Dominican monk, Friar Ricardo Perez, a protégé of Torquemada.
The narrative is compelling, sweeping the reader along on a well-paced journey, while the setting comes alive with the sights, sounds and smells of medieval Spain. The history of the relationship between the Jewish people and the Christians is incorporated in a believable way so that readers become acquainted with the historical background behind the rise of the Inquisition.
The writing is uneven at times, some of the dialogue stiff and the prose a little dry, while on occasion some of the descriptions were a little awkward. However the plot is so strong that it more than compensates for those minor technical distractions. I do not hesitate to recommend this book to lovers of historical fiction, especially those who enjoy learning about different cultures as they read.
This review first appeared in the August 2000 issue of The Historical Novels Review.
© Teresa Eckford, 2002