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Distant Music: A Novel Hardcover – May, 2003
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From Publishers Weekly
Two lovers persist in an oft-thwarted affair through six centuries and multiple incarnations in this richly suggestive novel, a blend of Jewish history and romance. In Madeira in 1429, a Catholic peasant girl named Esperana falls in love with Emmanuel, a Jewish youth off a ship temporarily anchored in the harbor. The narrative then loops ahead to Faro in 1489, where Esperana is a 15-year-old rich Catholic noblewoman and Emmanuel is a lowly printer's apprentice. The two love stories are a joining of intellectuals, with Emmanuel teaching both Esperanas to read Hebrew and to appreciate the printed page. The second Esperanta converts to Judaism and with Manuel and their two children, endures the horror of the expulsion of the Jews from Portugal. Langley ingeniously reprises the same unlikely love story twice more, first in Lisbon in 1855, where the upper-class Esperana risks her life to exonerate the reputation of the eccentric bookseller Emmanuel, who has been accused of murder, and in present-day London, where a Catholic woman named Esperanta (who has shortened her name to Hope) marries Dan, a Jew, though she loves his brother. A variation on the Kabbalistic phenomenon of gilgul, which allows for the reincarnation of unfulfilled souls, the novel demonstrates that true love can traverse epochs and social hierarchies. Though the personalities of Esperana and Emmanuel change and develop in their various manifestations, the novel is essentially a beautifully detailed history of Portugal, particularly of the lives of Sephardic Jews, with the leitmotif of outsiders in a culture closed to them. Langley's previous novel, Persistent Rumours, won a Commonwealth Writers' Prize, and this lyrical and resonant work shares the same assured and vibrant style.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
In this ambitious and deeply romantic novel, British author Langley (False Pretences, 1998) follows the lovers Esperanca and Emmanuel through four time periods and settings. They first meet on the island of Madeira in 1429, where Esperanca, an illiterate Catholic peasant, demands that Emmanuel, a Jewish boy who works on a sailing ship, teach her how to read. This quest for knowledge and the anti-Semitism that surfaces, forcing the pair to meet in private, are the threads that link all four tales, as the setting shifts to Faro in 1489, Lisbon in 1855, and London in 2000. This intriguing novel can be read as a story of reincarnation or as a testament to the power of love and its ability to put things right, for the lovers, continually thwarted by social or class prejudices, are finally reunited. Incorporating the backdrop of Portugal's maritime empire, the Spanish Expulsion of the Jews, and the sadness, or saudade, of Portuguese immigrants in London, Langley's richly atmospheric tale also offers surprisingly dramatic twists and turns. Joanne Wilkinson
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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It is difficult for me to disentangle my judgement of the book in its literary merit from the overall enjoyment of the reading experience: I think the story is interesting and provocative (and there is a slight twist at the end), but without the backdrop of the Portuguese history and landscape, perhaps it would not be so special. But does that matter? Should we not judge a book by our overall perception and enjoyment of it? The story itself is certainly "good enough" for one to keep turning the pages, and this background gives it more color and texture. One should not read it as a history book though; in fact, I think it is better to read a popular history book (such as the Cambridge series of Concise History of Portugal) to get some basic background to make reading this book even more enjoyable (which is what I did).
I would recommend this book to anyone who likes fiction and will travel to Portugal for the first time.
This may be a discomforting thought for those who think rationally and logically. Things happen because that’s the way they are meant to happen and just can’t be explained. Sometimes feelings like love can’t be explained, which is a recurring theme in the book Distant Music by author Lee Langley, winner of both the Writers’ Guild Best Fiction Award and a Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best Novel
Distant Music takes you through an imaginative love story that lasts several centuries. Set in multiple time places and periods like Faro,1429 and London, 2000, Esperança and Manuel fall in love every time, but throughout the novel, there are various different obstacles the lovers face including religion, class, and socioeconomic status. Throughout the book and time periods, who Esperança and Manuel are as people never change. Manuel is almost always the poor Jewish boy trying to make a living by selling art, whether it be maps, books, or music. Esperança starts out as a poor Catholic girl who doesn’t even know how to read, but as time progresses and she is reincarnated, again and again, she still continues to be a Catholic woman while also becoming more wealthy and educated. And every time, no matter what happens or who she is, she always chooses Manuel, which can’t really be explained.
In Faro, Portugal in 1489, Esperança is the daughter of a very wealthy man. She has everything she could ever want at that time: the ability to read, enjoy meals multiple times a day, and wear different outfits for every occasion. She was lives a luxurious life compared to how others were living at that time. But once she meets Manuel for the second time in the book she gives all of that up. She converts to Judaism to be with Manuel. At this time, Jewish people were literally being forced out of their homes. Even Esperança and Manuel are evicted after she had taken so much time to convert and learn Jewish laws. The only explanation for why she would choose Manual over this amazing life she had is love.
Langley provides so much tension and complications throughout the story that the reader wonders why they chose each other every time. Again, this can’t ever truly be explained. There is no logical reason for why, after 600 hundred years, Esperança and Manuel chose each other. During their time in Faro, I, as a reader, felt the most tension. So many bad things kept happening to Esperança back to back. She is a good person, and she never had any bad intentions or ill thoughts towards anyone. The fact that she loses so much for someone she loves makes her an even stronger character. I appreciate the fact that Langley made Esperança so humble and hopeful, a foreshadow for her name that is revealed towards the end of the book. I believe that Esperança’s personality throughout the books makes the reader love her a just as much as she loves Manuel.
Through so many struggles and tribulations, their love never changed and only grew stronger. I would recommend Distant Music to anyone looking for a story about love that has so many other underlying themes. These themes help build the story to show just love be so magical and sometimes unrealistic.