Southeast Asian jewels were prized throughout Europe during the Renaissance, and traders regularly made the precarious, multiyear journey across the seas to trade for precious rubies and sapphires that would grace the crowns of kings and the necks of noblewomen. In The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover, Abraham is an Italian Jew sent by his uncle to the Burmese kingdom of Pegu to buy gems. The story is told through letters he writes to his cousin Joseph. At first he is frightened by the bizarre tattoos and adornments favored by the local heathens (mostly Buddhists), but he feels his first taste of freedom on these shores far from the ghettoes of Venice. Culture shock sets in as his broker, Win, explains the local custom that foreign men are expected to take the virginity of women before they officially join their husbands' homes. Abraham struggles to find balance between what his religion tells him is right and what will help his business prosper. As Abraham becomes immersed in Pegu's culture and its political problems, he begins to see the beauty in the people's religion, their customs and in the people themselves. When a widowed bride comes to live at his house, he finds that there is much more to the world than he ever imagined, and that belonging can be found even among people who outwardly have nothing in common.
The novel, Hantover's first, is a beautiful, if somewhat slowly paced, story of love overcoming obstacles and the ways in which travel and immersion in another culture can change lives. Through Abraham's letters, readers see him become a different and better person as a result of his experiences in Pegu.
One would expect the setting to be a main character in a book like this, but there's actually not that much description of the lush surroundings in which this story takes place. Instead, readers are treated to a long look at the interior landscape of a man of faith whose world is shaken by the power of unexpected love.
Sarah E. White writes from Arkansas.