- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 14, 2003

The “Distant Music” of Lee Langley’s title is a half heard echo from the past, an elusive recurrent memory which haunts a Portuguese girl through several lifetimes and weaves her experience into her country’s history, and more particularly into the history of the Sephardic Jews. The four stories which make up the book are linked by the re-existence through time of the girl Esperanca and her Jewish lover Manuel, whom she meets and re-meets in successive lives.

Esperanca — or Hope, as she is named in her 20th-century London incarnation — first loves and loses Emmanuel in Madeira in 1429. He is a boy from a sailing ship: These are the pioneering days of the Portuguese seafarers so enthusiastically encouraged by Prince Henry the Navigator. Manuel teaches Esperanca to read and awakens her curiosity about the world. Only when she tries to impress her local priest does she discover that she can read only Hebrew and that the boy is a Jew, an outsider; the Jews were the killers of Jesus, the priest has denounced them from the pulpit.

The love affair has to continue in secret, until the time comes for Manuel’s ship to sail. Esperanca, never finding love again, cultivates the land and the brutal men who own it and by these means becomes herself the owner of a prosperous vineyard. In her resigned old age she sits on a bench looking out to sea, talking to a red-haired man called Columbus who thinks of nothing but sea voyages and undiscovered continents.

Esperanca is reading again the next time Manuel sees her, but this is another incarnation, a few generations later, and she is a rich girl, oddly attracted to the Jewish boy who works for the printer her father patronizes. Again he tells her stories, sometimes about the maps he draws for the seafarers — one of his uncles went on Columbus’ first voyage — and again she is enchanted. This time her reluctant father allows her to marry and convert, but the King of Portugal wants to marry a Spanish princess and the Spaniards have expelled the Jews. The Portuguese must do the same, and Esperanca must meet her fate on an overcrowded refugee ship.

In 19th-century Lisbon life is more civilized, or at any rate more discreet. The Jewish bookseller is much patronized by rich collectors, the young girl’s interest in him tolerated as long as conventions are observed; but when a series of unsolved crimes need a scapegoat there is no doubt who will be chosen. Manuel’s gentleness and learning are no defense.

In London at the turn of the millennium the obstacle is not anti-Semitism so much as duplication; Manuel has become a twin. The young Hope chooses the wrong one of the two delightful young men she meets in Madeira when her Portuguese grandparents take her there on a cruise. Tragedy brings her to the right one in the end, but not until she has had to feel once more the pain of displacement, the theme that underlies the whole novel.

Lee Langley’s delicate prose brings to life the lush countryside of Madeira and the streams which run down the steep hills to feed its exuberance, the candleberry trees, the tall mahogany and the palms, the lily of the valley with their white sweet-smelling flowers, the bamboos and tall ferns and the strange shapes of the spiky dragon trees. She conjures up the luxurious life of the rich in the days of Portugal’s prosperity as the hub of a successful Empire:

“Servants circled the long tables, hauling a golden cart filled with the stuff of happiness — whole sheep with gilded horns and hooves, and arranged between the sheep, roasted peacocks, complete with tails, heads, and necks with all the feathers on. Tucked between the peacocks were capons and, above them, wild ducks, partridges and quails. Small birds perched on larger ones, at the very top a lark whose charred neck was circled with a tiny golden chain.”

On the banks of the Alcantara brook beneath the aqueduct in 19th-century Lisbon the linen is spread out to dry beneath orange groves and vineyards. “Small houses were scattered over the bare hills and, farther off, the distant mountains hid themselves behind clouds. Out of sight, downstream, lay the Almada shore, the waterfront with its brawls and big ships, where men gathered, prayed silently, and floated into the open mouth of the sea and the teeth of the wind.”

The evil of exploitation mars the idyllic scene; a brutal murderer stalks the washerwomen, and their prosperous employers’ concern is mainly for their laundry. They are happy enough for the Jewish outsider to be blamed for crimes he clearly did not commit.

Portugal and its formation, both natural and historical, obviously fascinates the author. Manuel in his various incarnations imparts a great deal of information about the country and its Jewish population. Interesting as this is, there are passages which seem more like a history lesson than an integral part of the story.

Oddly enough it is in her 20th-century descriptions that Lee Langley’s ear for dialogue seems occasionally to desert her, and her account of the long and increasingly disappointing marriage between Hope and the wrong twin is more or less formulaic, perhaps because the author’s own imagination is less intensely involved than in the historical sections. But altogether “Distant Music” is a thoughtful and imaginative romance, and Lee Langley’s prose is always something to be savored.

Isabel Colegate is the author, most recently, of “A Pelican in the Wilderness.”

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