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Dark and stormy

Hunting Midnight: A Novel, Richard Zimler, Delacorte Press: 500 pp., $24.95

August 17, 2003|Brigitte Frase | Brigitte Frase is a contributing editor to the Ruminator.

In "The Last Kabbalist of Lisbon," Richard Zimler guided readers through the streets and secret synagogues of the early 16th century city, where Jews have been forcibly converted to Christianity but are still subject to the occasional massacre, Catholics rightly suspecting that Judaism has not been wiped out but only driven underground. One such secret Jew, Berekiah Zarco, eventually leads some of his people to Constantinople, where the Muslims allow them to practice their religion openly.

Zarco's descendant is the main narrator and protagonist of "Hunting Midnight." As the novel opens, John Zarco Stewart is an 8-year-old living with his Scottish father James and Portuguese mother in the city of Porto in 1800. He has two frightening encounters with a street preacher named Lourenzo Reis, who is trying to foment hatred of Jews and bring about the return of the Inquisition. John is at first disbelieving, then shocked, to learn that he is Jewish and that there are many hidden Jews, or Marranos, passing as "New Christians."

But a third of the way into the novel, Zimler loses interest in the Jewish theme. The narrative becomes immersed in the mythology of the Kalahari Bushmen, through a black man whom John's father kidnaps from his British owner in Africa and brings to Porto. He becomes a trusted member of the Stewart household and a mentor to John. As if that isn't exotic enough, Tsamma, now called Midnight, travels with James Stewart to London to work with Edward Jenner on finding a cure for smallpox and is believed to have been shot to death by a country house gamekeeper, after which the Stewart family falls into despair and dysfunction.

Years later, John learns from his father's old friend Benjamin that Midnight had been sold into slavery by James and might still be alive. Given the deep respect and affection James had clearly felt for Midnight, this turn of events makes no sense. Neither does the motivation Benjamin offers; it is an implausible plot trick to send John to London, New York and the Riverbend Plantation in South Carolina.

As in the previous novel, there are disappearances, murders to solve and the persecuted -- Jews then, slaves now -- to rescue. Berekiah Zarco makes a ghostly cameo appearance, calling the half-dead John back to life from a gunshot wound. It is odd that Zimler, who wrote a believable "historical" prose in his first novel, keeping it fairly straightforward with occasional period words and locutions, writes so awkwardly here. The attempt, for example, to combine a very stagy pastiche of Portuguese and Scottish language of the period with modern vernacular will dispirit readers who sound out a book's sentences in their heads. John's father-in-law tells him that when his wife left him, "[h]e made a fist and shook it at her. 'You done me wrong, you wicked woman.' "

Most of the stylistic problems occur in the first half of the novel; part two is more fluent and fluidly paced. A new protagonist joins the cast and alternates narrative duties with John. Morrie is a 15-year-old slave on the Riverbend Plantation. Her full name is Memoria. Her father, Midnight, taught her the ancient myths as well as his deep knowledge of herbal compounds. A sympathetic figure, she is more fully realized than any of the other characters.

When John eventually shows up and recognizes her as Midnight's daughter, she remains wary and stubbornly uncommunicative. Indeed, why should she trust him? Despite his respectful ways, he might well be another white devil who isn't looking for his old friend but hunting his property. In any case, Morrie doesn't know if her father is alive or dead; he vanished three years earlier. Eventually, John wins her over when he reveals his mastery of the herbalist's art and solves the mysterious murders of the father and son who owned the plantation.

He then helps her and some of the other house slaves plan a getaway. Betrayals and tortures ensue and ... whew! The plot races thrillingly along, though one feels uneasy with the stock footage of the unvaryingly noble blacks versus the inhumanly evil whites. But never mind. All's well that ends well, and that, of course, can't be discussed here. "Hunting Midnight's" lurid plot fireworks make it a decent summer read.

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