By Dara Horn
Old Street Publishing, £11.99
Inside a barrel in the bottom of a boat, with a canteen of water wedged between his legs and a packet of poison concealed in his pocket, Jacob Rappaport felt a knot tightening in his stomach — not because he was about to do something dangerous, but because he was about to do something wrong.” It is a terrific first line, and as it progresses, Dara Horn’s new novel gets more gripping — both as a straightforward thriller and as a novel of ideas.
Her protagonist, Rappaport, is a 19-year-old who runs away from his New York home to fight in the American Civil War because he regrets agreeing to a match, foisted upon him by his parents, with a “mentally deficient” girl. His commanders soon discover that he is well-connected and send him across enemy lines to New Orleans, to murder his uncle, who is himself planning to assassinate Abraham Lincoln.
Incapable, again, of saying no, he joins his extended family for Seder night. This night is certainly different from all other nights — it ends with his uncle’s violent death.
But now Jacob’s commanders have an even more complicated assignment. They ask him to meet, and marry, a young Jewish girl at the centre of a spy ring in Virginia, and report back on her activities. Eugenia Levy seems beautiful, confident and headstrong but is slowly revealed to be desperately unhappy: a few years earlier, she witnessed her mother being murdered by a slave.
Predictably, Rappaport falls in love with her, and is forced to decide whether to stand by her or his country. Less predictably, he chooses his country. For almost half the novel, he is learning to come to terms with his choice.
The novel’s motif is the nature of freedom — for Jacob, who is first trapped by his parents’ expectations, then by those of the army; for America’s slaves, who may be owned by other men, but are often portrayed here as determining their own fate; and for the Jews, both those of the South, whose dinner on Seder Night, during the festival of freedom, is served by slaves, and the immigrant Jews on both sides of the war, who fled to the New World to build new lives, but only really become accepted by dying for it.
It is all beautifully woven together and if the novel does not have the stylistic innovation of Horn’s previous books, it compensates with some memorable and audacious characters.
Rappaport is, in fact, the most ordinary. Eugenia, a budding conjurer who can dislocate her jaw at will, is particularly striking. So is the historical figure of Judah Benjamin, the Confederate’s Jewish secretary of state, and Thomas Jefferson’s closest adviser.
The latter, according to the author’s afterword, managed, after the collapse of the Confederacy, “a fabulous escape, involving everything from disguising himself as a Frenchman to traversing the swamps of Florida on foot, to following a talking parrot to the home of a Confederate sympathiser, to surviving the sinking of one boat in the Caribbean and a fire on another”. Benjamin finally made his way to England, where he had citizenship having been born in the British West Indies, became a QC and authored a Treatise on the Law of Sale of Personal Property, which is still used today.
That fabulous footnote is alone worth the cover price of what is an entertaining as well as thoughtful book.