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Book Review

In Search of the Three Brethren, Jewels Valued Beyond Price

January 29, 2002|BERNADETTE MURPHY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

THE LOVE OF STONES

A Novel

By Tobias Hill

Picador USA

396 pages, $25

"I think that after a certain age jewels cease to be possessions," explains Katherine Sterne, the main character in "The Love of Stones," an intriguing, high-tension novel by British author Tobias Hill that centers on rare, antique jewels and the obsession they may inspire. Once the fixation for a particular set of stones takes hold, Katherine tells us, it is the jewels themselves that "become the possessors."

In this tale that is equal parts mystery-thriller, literary novel and history lesson, Katherine is one of many possessed by the Three Brethren. The ancient cloak clasp, which dates back to the 15th century, has not been seen since Queen Victoria wore it just prior to her coronation in 1838. For reasons never logically explained--when possessed by the love of stones, we're told, logic doesn't enter into the equation--Katherine is on a current-day, globe-traipsing mission to unearth the missing brooch.

On her travels, we meet a cast of similarly jewel-addicted characters with whom Katherine deals and, just as often, cheats.

"The search ... has changed me," she says of having left behind all family and friends, living on the run from continent to continent. "For the people who make their lives from them, stones are more than ornaments or currency. They are a kind of drug, a crystallised heroin. A fetish. They attract violence."

Though Katherine has no proof the Three Brethren still endures, she intuits its existence by the pull the jewel exudes over her, compelling her to keep searching regardless of personal cost or the likelihood of her prevailing. From Turkey to London and then on to Japan, Katherine cannot rest. "I see history through the eyes of the Three Brethren," she tells us. "It is the way a pawnbroker might look at things: as if everything has a value and a price."

Comprised of a triad of massive balas rubies, pear-shaped pearls and the "Heart of the Brothers," a wine-yellow diamond of 1371/2 carats, the Three Brethren has attracted over the centuries many seekers like Katherine who would forgo almost anything to lay claim to this prize. The value of the cloak clasp for its pursuers goes far beyond price, a legacy Hill deftly traces in the history of the jewel. By tracking the lives of the many people who have owned it, killed for it, stolen it and searched for it, Hill explores the brooch's six centuries of existence and, in doing so, shines as an exceptional storyteller. Using a kind of old-fashioned diction reminiscent of the tales of Scheherazade, he conjures a spell over his readers, luring us into the exotic worlds he describes. The book's strongest sections, in fact, have nothing to do with Katherine's search but are found in the overlapping strands of parallel subplots Hill weaves throughout.

As Katherine's story goes back in time to uncover the last time the brooch was seen and where it might have gone, another strand of the narrative takes the brooch's creation in the early 1400s as its starting point and moves forward in time until it intersects with what Katherine has learned.

The most captivating of the historical subplots takes place in the 1800s and tells of Iraqi brothers Daniel and Salman Levy who immigrate to England and work as goldsmiths on the crown for Queen Victoria. Their tale, of having been gifted with an earthenware jar filled with jewels while still living in Iraq--the Three Brethren among them--and then of their attempts to wrest their jewelry-making fortunes in London from those precious stones, is lively and impressively narrated.

We learn how jewels were cut in earlier times, how a genuine diamond feels different in the hand than a fake due to the stone's thermoconductivity, and how the measurement of a carat (based on the weight of seeds from the locust bean tree Ceratonia siliqua) was derived.

Unfortunately, the main plot focused on Katherine's search never rises to the occasion the way these subplots do. As a character, Katherine is emotionally deadened, a cold-fish of a narrator. Though this numbness is clearly meant as a partial explanation for her jewel obsession, it doesn't do much to spark the reader's interest. Her tale, which is reported in the literary equivalent of a first-person monotone, is marred by this anesthetization; readers may have a hard time feeling for her what she doesn't feel for herself.

Though one can't help but wish for a better narrative, there is much to be admired in Hill's lush use of language, the potent storytelling and, most especially, the delightful historical details and exotic locations he excavates. Perhaps the weakness of Katherine's story is like the flaw that mars every diamond: a demonstration of its one-of-a-kind, albeit imperfect, nature.

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