The Convert by Stefan Hertmans, translated by David McKay

The cover of "The Convert" by Stefan Hertmans. It is noted as a novel and by the author of the book "War and Turpentine." The cover image is a close up of a young woman's face from a medieval painting. The paint has started to crack.

The snapchat caption reads

I bought this on a whim because it sounded like the sort of historical fiction I would enjoy; historical fiction based in historical fact. I was completely correct. “The Convert” is a fictional representation of what the life of Vigdis Adelaïs, a well-born 11th century Norman girl who leaves her home and family to run away with the Jewish boy (David Todros) she fell in love with, might have been like.

A picture of one of the primary documents on Vigdis', a letter of recommendation from a rabbi to help her travel. 

The snapchat caption reads "Primary! Documents!"

While the genre of historical fiction relies heavily on speculation in general, I draw attention to it here in particular because the narrative does. The novel blends Vigdis/Hamoutal’s journey as she flees her home, converts to a new religion, and, later, searches for her children, with the journey the author/narrator takes to retrace the possible path that she took in the 21st century. We never forget for a moment that this is a real person and that there are significant gaps in her narrative, which is constructed on two document fragments that are located in the Cairo Genizah Collection at the University of Cambridge. 

Quote from page 63 "Standing on the sandy riverbank, I'm assailed by fresh doubts about their escape route. Why wouldn't they have been smuggled out of the city in a nondescript boat by a helpful Jewish fisherman who lived nearby? They could have followed the looping course of the Seine southward. No, then they might have been discovered and betrayed at any time. I imagine their pursuers conducting a systematic sweep of the river."

The snapchat caption reads: "I love how the author uses the gaps in the historical record to build the narrative!"

Now, with the whole story, past and present, being told by our author/narrator and weaving between past, present and historical background, there is a bit of jumping around in time throughout the whole book. If you aren’t used to reading novels that play with narrative structure there may be a few moments of confusion at first, but those don’t last long and, for me, they came mostly from the fact that you are dropped directly into the middle of the story, before you are taken back to the beginning of the story in chapter two.

A quote from the book, "In the Norman port of Rouen on a bright autumn day in the year 1070, a girl is born." 

The snapchat caption reads: "Oh excellent it's backstory time. I love the time jumps here. There's always a risk of that being confusing, but it's not at all"

Otherwise, the past and present narratives are told more or less concurrently.

Quote: I'd searched for freighters, but they never seemed to follow Hamoutal's route either. Imagining I would re-enact her voyage as accurately as possible, I'd overlooked how completed the world has changed."

Snapchat caption: "The overlay of modern path and historical path has been incredibly evocative."

It should be noted that this story is, ultimately, a tragedy, though our heroine has her moments of happiness throughout. The backdrop for this story is the First Crusade, which was not a time that was kind to the Jewish people, and Hamoutal’s woes are compounded by being a fugitive as her parents have people searching for her. Particular warnings in these veins include: graphic depictions of antisemitic violence, including pogroms; multiple instances of explicit sexual assault; and child death. I do feel like the sexual assault was a bit excessive as there were three instances of assault for Hamoutal alone, not counting all the background mentions. Two of those three instances, in my opinion, could have been left as instances of physical violence (which they already were without the assault). 

Although Hamoutal’s story is ultimately a tragic one, the story as whole does not end tragically with her death. It ends instead with her resurrection through the continued study of the two fragments that give us glimpses into her life as well as through how our author/narrator has resurrected her path through the world with his own journey and the legacy she and her little family left on the world. A bittersweet ending perhaps, but that is what I love about history, historical fiction and research: the ability to give new life to a person who has been hidden in the historical record.

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