The Jewel Trader of Pegu
2008, Historical Fiction (1590s Pegu (Burma))
William Morrow, $21.95, 240 pages, Amazon ASIN 0061252700
The Jewel Trader of Pegu was a very difficult book for me to grade. On the one hand, it features a truly unique setting and story - and beautiful writing. However, at times I felt as if the main story had more to do with the hero's love of himself and his newfound sense of self and less with any real love for and relationship with the heroine.
Abraham is a young widower sent by his uncle to Pegu (modern-day Burma, or Myanmar for those who wish) to trade for jewels. Upon his arrival, Abraham finds himself well-treated, and for the first time in his life, not subject to discrimination related to his status as a Jew.
This new freedom intrigues and exhilarates Abraham, as does the process of learning the customs of Pegu. The author does a wonderful job of describing the setting through Abraham's eyes and the reader gradually gets acquainted with the city just as the narrator does. The descriptions of Pegu are lush and colorful, and, just as his life as a trader lies somewhat removed from the growing unrest caused by the erratic king of Pegu, so too does the story seem to develop in a way that is primarily outside the political circles of the place.
As Abraham grows accustomed to his temporary new home, his broker informs him of a duty that foreign traders are expected to perform to bring blessing to the marriages of merchant's daughters. Abraham finds the request distasteful as it requires him to break Jewish law, but as living in Pegu somewhat changes his identity, it also begins to change his attitudes toward religion and law.
While in Pegu, Abraham is introduced to Mya, a village girl who has come to Pegu to be married. He is moved by Mya and drawn to her. When she is left widowed and alone, he allows her to be taken into his household, where his attraction to her grows ever more powerful.
While the author excels at describing Pegu and at showing Abraham's internal journey, the relationship between Abraham and Mya at times seems a little lacking. Even the presence of brief chapters narrated by Mya don't give the story the depth of feeling it needs to be convincing. One can convey much using very subtle language, but that just does not happen here. Abraham and Mya's love story does not take on the feeling of immediacy and reality that other parts of the story manage to do. This is due in large part to the fact that the author never seems to get inside Mya's head in any satisfying way. Her view of events and feelings is overly simplistic, Abraham's understanding of her seems to be somewhat limited, and her character is never developed with anything near the subtlety and complexity the author devotes to Abraham.
Those readers who expect a great love story from The Jewel Trader of Pegu will likely come away disappointed. This novel contains a great picture of a dying land and tells a very intriguing tale of self-discovery, however, and the beautiful language employed makes it worth reading in spite of its flaws.
-- Lynn Spencer
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