Monday, March 24, 2014

Book Review: The Debt of Tamar by Nicole Dweck


During the second half of the 16th century, a wealthy widow by the name of Doña Antonia Nissim is arrested and charged with being a secret Jew. The punishment? Death by burning. Enter Suleiman the Magnificent, an Ottoman “Schindler,” and the most celebrated sultan in all of Turkish history. With the help of the Sultan, the widow and her children manage their escape to Istanbul. Life is seemingly idyllic for the family in their new home, that is, until the Sultan’s son meets and falls in love with Tamar, Doña Antonia’s beautiful and free-spirited granddaughter. A quiet love affair ensues until one day, the girl vanishes.

Over four centuries later, thirty-two year old Selim Osman, a playboy prince with a thriving real estate empire, is suddenly diagnosed with a life-threatening condition. Abandoning the mother of his unborn child, he vanishes from Istanbul without an explanation. In a Manhattan hospital, he meets Hannah, a talented artist and the daughter of a French Holocaust survivor. As their story intertwines with that of their ancestors, readers are taken back to Nazi-occupied Paris, and to a sea-side village in the Holy Land where a world of secrets is illuminated.

Theirs is a love that has been dormant for centuries, spanning continents, generations, oceans, and religions. Bound by a debt that has lingered through time, they must right the wrongs of the past if they’re ever to break the shackles of their future.

Devon House Press | February 2013 | 332 pages (paperback) | ISBN-10: 061558361X

My Review

Nicole Dweck's debut novel, The Debt of Tamar, spans four centuries and three continents.  The story begins in 16th century Portugal, where thousands of Jews are being forced from their homes and livelihoods.  While many are killed, some, including wealthy widow Dona Antonia Nissam, her daughter Reyna, and nephew José, are able to escape to Istanbul in the Ottoman Empire, which under Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent is religiously tolerant.  Life in Istanbul proves to be good for José, whose intelligence draws him to the attention of Suleiman's son and heir, Selim, who arranges to have José's daughter, Tamar, raised in the harem.  Once in the harem, Tamar befriends Selim's son Murat, and over time the two fall in love and vow to marry.  When Tamar mysteriously vanishes without a trace, Murat falls into a deep melancholy from which he is unable to recover.  

After the disappearance of Tamar, the novel's setting shifts to present day Istanbul, where Selim Osman, grandson of the last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, is going through the motions of life while shouldering immense guilt and regret.  When he is diagnosed with an almost certainly fatal disease, Selim leaves Istanbul behind and heads to Manhattan for experimental treatment.  While in the hospital, Selim meets Hannah, the daughter of Selim's roommate, a French Holocaust survivor named Davide.  As Selim and Hannah get to know one another, the story flashes back to Davide's earlier life and history, a history that ties Hannah to Selim in ways neither of them could have imagined.

The Debt of Tamar is a beautifully told tale.  Dweck's prose is lyrical, and her descriptions rich and full of vivid detail.   The novel's principal setting, Istanbul, is compelling, especially during the parts of the narrative set in the past.  While the story itself is an interesting one, the way in which it is told, in three distinct parts (José and Tamar's narrative, Selim's narrative, and Davide's flashbacks), failed to work for me.  While each part of narrative connects to the others in ways that are clearly conveyed to the reader, these connections aren't emphasized strongly enough to make the novel feel like one complete story rather than three separate ones.  This is most pronounced when the setting of the novel shifts from the past to present day, as the modern day storyline makes only a few references to the events of José and Tamar's narrative.  The novel's principal characters are appealing on the surface, but aren't fleshed out well enough for the reader to understand some of the motivations behind their actions.  This lack of depth is especially evident when it comes to José, whose behaviour in certain instances is never adequately explained.  

Despite the fact that I didn't enjoy The Debt of Tamar as much as I had hoped I would, I do feel the novel is worth reading.  I certainly enjoyed Dweck's prose and choice of settings, and because of this would not hesitate to read more from her. 

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars
Source: I received a copy of this novel as part of Nicole Dweck's Virtual Book Tour in exchange for a fair and honest review.

 The Debt of Tamar is currently on tour!  Click here to check out the tour schedule. 

About the Author

Nicole Dweck is a writer whose work has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the country.  As a descendant of Sephardic (Spanish) refugees who escaped the Inquisition and settled on Ottoman territory, Dweck has always been interested in Sephardic history and the plight of refugees during the Spanish Inquisition. The Debt of Tamar, her debut novel, was a two-time finalist in the UK’s Cinnamon Press Novel Award Competition. It has also received an honorable award mention in the category of Mainstream/Literary Fiction from Writers Digest and was the highest rated book for two weeks running on the Harper Collin’s “Authonomy” website. It has claimed a #1 Bestseller spot in the Amazon Kindle Middle East Fiction category, a #1 Bestseller spot in Amazon Kindle Jewish Fiction category, and has been included as one of the “Hot 100″ Kindle bestsellers in the category of Historical Fiction.

Dweck holds a BA in Journalism and a Masters Degree in Global Studies with a focus on Middle East Affairs (NYU) . Her non-fiction articles have appeared in several magazines and newspapers including The New York Observer and Haute Living Magazine.

She lives in New York City with her husband and son.

For more information visit Nicole’s website. You can also connect with her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

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