May Read The Convert

Before the Corona Virus COVID-19 Lockdown our Pageturners Book Discussion Group were to chat about The Convert by Stefan Hertmans and translated by David McKay. If you have read this book please let us know your thoughts by adding your comments to this post or email Jasmine at  jvidler@cwl.nsw.gov.au.

Set at the time of the Crusades and based on historical events, The Convert is the story of a strong-willed young woman who sacrifices everything in the name of love.

When Stefan Hertmans learns that Monieux, the small Provençal village in which he lives, was the scene of a pogrom a thousand years ago and that a treasure may be hidden there, he goes in search of clues. The first is a letter, written in Hebrew nearly a thousand years ago, originally discovered among a startling collection of Jewish documents in the Ben Ezra Synagogue in Cairo in the late nineteenth century.

This letter sets Hertmans off on the trail of a young woman who fled her powerful Christian family to marry the love of her life, the son of the chief rabbi of France, for whom she renounced her own faith. Originally known as Vigdis, the young woman changed her name to Hamoutal upon converting to Judaism. Her father offered a large sum to anyone who could bring her back, but the lovers managed to escape to Monieux. They were not safe for long, though: Monieux bore witness to a bloody pogrom, after which Hamoutal found herself alone and once again having to flee.

Hertmans retraces Hamoutal’s footsteps—first through the French cities of Rouen, Narbonne and Marseille, as she makes her way south, fleeing her family, and then on to Sicily and ultimately to Cairo, where she sought asylum. It is a dizzying, often terrifying journey, full of hardships, that unfolds against the backdrop of the death and destruction of the Crusades.

The Convert is both an epic love story and a harrowing portrait of the havoc wrought by holy war. It is a tale of flight, and fear, a story that seeks to answer a pivotal question: What does it mean to change your identity?

New York Times Book Review:

2 thoughts on “May Read The Convert

  1. Diane Burrell May 11, 2020 / 10:08 am

    I did enjoy this book in many ways. Unsurprisingly, I loved the historical content and I found out about many things I didn’t previously know.I thought the characters were very sympathetically drawn and was able to feel invested in their story.
    However, I didn’t like the way the author continually insinuated himself into the story. I thought it would be way better without him. I actually expected to find out he was a descendant of one of the characters, but there wasn’t even that to justify it.
    The other thing that bothered me ( and this is something I often find with historical fiction, so it isn’t necessarily a gripe with this author) is that he has taken two real people, recorded in history and imposed too many of his ideas and guesses on their lives. I understand that the characters need to be fleshed out to make them real and to fill in much of the story, but two questions do jump out at me. 1. Why would the governess help her to see him when she knew the consequences for everyone? 2. Why would they spend days of sexual abandon in the meadow when they were in danger? I don’t doubt for a minute the sexual tension and attraction that would have been present, but I’m fairly sure they would have used that time to get further away from their pursuers. I DID believe that her insanity at the end was very plausible as what she had been through would have destroyed anyone.
    I am possibly being a bit harsh as I realise historical fiction often has to rely on conjecture, rather than fact. I did enjoy reading it, despite my criticisms. Probably score it three and a half as it was easy to read and provided lots of actual historical facts throughout the book. Loved anything to do with the discovery of artefacts and anything about the origin of the Crusades.
    Di Burrell

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  2. Paul Anderson May 19, 2020 / 3:20 pm

    I struggled through much of this book. 2/5.

    Clearly it has literary merit and is meticulously researched. The author has a powerful imagination and stamina. No argument there. This is a book worth reading.

    The historical setting is engrossing, set at the time of The First Crusade (1096-1099). However the book suffers from being research-heavy and too long is spent in France. I guess you either like historical fiction or you don’t. It felt like reading a map or orienteering. It was a relief to get to the Alexandria and Cairo chapters where my interest picked up again.

    The foreshadowing of future events was a demotivation to read on. The reader is told in several places that disaster lies ahead and Hamoutal will never reach Jerusalem. The knights speak woodenly. This may be a function of the translation from Dutch or just bad dialogue.

    I liked the author inserting himself. (Sorry Di!) His own journey to retrace Hamoutal’s route from Rouen to Cairo – futile and he knows it, and we know it because he tells us when he is fed up – is a daring device. I enjoyed these sections the most, brave writing and relieved the boredom.

    The novel is created around factual events and historical records. Still it is incredible. Hamoutal flees too many times for the story to be believable almost. Would she leave Cairo and relative safety? How does her second husband know her abducted children are in Rouen with her parents?

    Her rapid mental decline after returning to Narbonne – this acceleration in the narrative – felt out of step with the rest of the novel which is more of a trek. Was this a rush to finish the book?

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