[review copy from Netgalley
Originally published here: http://irisonbooks.com/2012/05/01/the-last-song-by-eva-wiseman/]
I have always found Spain at the time of the Reconquista a fascinating subject. There is something so fascinating about a society in which Christians, Muslims, and Jews lived together, with at the same time the religious tensions and wars, and the role of the Inquisition, in particular during the reign of Ferdinand III of Aragon and Isabella of Castille. I am not an expert, at all, but what I have read on the subject has made an impression.
And so, when I saw The Last Song up on Netgalley, a YA novel set in Spain around 1490, I was excited. In it, Wiseman tells the story of a girl called Isabel, whose father is a respected court physician. She has been raised Catholic. What she does not know, however, is that her parents are what were called “new Christians” and have Jewish roots. In a society in which the Inquisition becomes more powerful each day, Isabel’s parents try to safeguard their child’s future by arranging a marriage with a boy from a well-established Christian family. However, despite these arrangements, Isabel’s family is not safe..
I am sorry to say that Eva Wiseman’s latest novel turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. What sounded like a promising story fell flat for several reasons. The book was so concise that did not do the complexity of the story and its setting justice. The prose at times it felt like a disengaged retelling of events, and therefore I found it hard to feel immersed in the story. Moreover, there were some convenient plot resolutions that took away from the natural flow of the story.
I respect that Spanish society around 1492 was complex, and that the religious issues tackled might make it an even more difficult subject to write about. I was elated to find Isabel confused about her parents’ Jewish heritage, given that she’d always been taught to loathe them. I also appreciated that fact that she was curious about Judaism, but at the same time felt at home with Catholicism and found comfort in praying to the Virgin Mary. And so the beginning of the book made me feel hopeful. But all too soon Isabel starts changing her views, and suddenly, she starts sneaking out to learn about Judaism, despite knowing of the danger to her family and friends, and despite the fact that I’m pretty sure her parents would have liked to tell her about their roots just as well. Isabel’s actions throughout the book were erratic, difficult to understand when the story tries to impress you with the dangers of the situation, and some of her decisions just made no sense at all, except that they led to plot developments a few pages on.
Furthermore, the good-bad divide of the story felt a little too convenient. Basically, all the Jews or new Christians we meet are good. Of course, it makes sense to highlight their awful situation, but.. I don’t know. In contrast, most of the Catholic characters were depicted as spoiled, used to getting what they want, and willing to negate the welfare of others to protect themselves. Hints were given to the power of the Inquisition and the fear for their own safety, but none of these Catholic characters’ division of loyalties was developed well enough for me to feel satisfied. I wondered at the absence of Muslims from the story, but perhaps that has to do with its focus being on converted Jews, as Jews were the first to be expelled from Spain? Isabel’s family has one slave who has the Muslim name Yussuf, but he is not given much of a voice, although he is portrayed as loyal. On the topic of slavery I felt you could, again, notice the author struggling with it being a part of the historical setting, and it being an uncomfortable topic for modern readers. I liked that slavery was accepted as natural, as it might have been back then (again, I don’t know enough about the specifics), but at the same time the treatment of slaves across different families a little too conveniently tied in with the Catholic-New Christian divide. I do understand some of the decisions Wiseman made, and I want to acknowledge how difficult a setting this is to navigate, however, I felt that, overall, this complex situation could have been handled better, perhaps by allowing the novel to be a little longer?
There were times that I felt The Last Song had a lot of promise. There were a few scenes that worked well. But overall, I am sorry to say that this was a disappointing read. One that I did not mind reading so much, but that did not make a lasting impression.