The Jewel Trader of Pegu: A Novel
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The Jewel Trader of Pegu: A Novel

4.3 10
by Jeffrey Hantover

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In the autumn of 1598, Abraham, a melancholy young Jewish gem merchant, seeks his fortune far from the imprisoning ghetto walls of Venice. Traveling halfway across the world, he lands in the lush and exotic Burmese kingdom of Pegu—an alien place, yet one where the jewel trader is not shunned for his faith. There is a price for his newfound freedom, however.


In the autumn of 1598, Abraham, a melancholy young Jewish gem merchant, seeks his fortune far from the imprisoning ghetto walls of Venice. Traveling halfway across the world, he lands in the lush and exotic Burmese kingdom of Pegu—an alien place, yet one where the jewel trader is not shunned for his faith. There is a price for his newfound freedom, however. Local custom demands that Abraham perform a duty he finds troubling and barbaric . . . and thus Mya, barely more than a girl, arrives to share his bed. Gently banishing his despair, awakening something profound within him, Mya ultimately accepts Abraham's protection and, unexpectedly, his love. But great social and political upheaval threatens to violently transform the Peguan empire—with devastating consequences for Abraham and Mya and their dreams for the future.

Editorial Reviews

“[Readers] will be swept away by Hantover’s lavish descriptions of an exotic, lost Asian kingdom; the gentle love story; and the tale of one man’s thoughtful journey to his heart’s home.”
“A journey to the center of the heart . . . a beautiful story of love overcoming obstacles . . . [R]eaders are treated to a long look at the interior landscape of a man of faith whose world is shaken by the power of unexpected love.”
The Reporter
“[E]nchanting...moving...Hantover has written a jewel of a novel.”
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
“Beautifully written and expertly researched by an art and antiquities expert, this novel captivates ‘til its final page.”
The American Jewish World
“A vivid portrait of life in Southeast Asia of the 16th century...[A] compelling debut novel.”
“[E]nchanting...moving...Hantover has written a jewel of a novel.”
Debra Dean
“A thinking reader’s tale with all the trappings of an exotic historical romance.”
Liza Dalby
“Dreamy and lyrical, steeped in the customs and atmosphere of a world long lost, THE JEWEL TRADER OF PEGU takes the reader on a deep emotional journey through the meanings of what is precious.”
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
An immensely satisfying historical novel, Hantover's debut reveals an unlikely romance between a dour Jewish jewel trader and a young Burmese girl in the late 16th century. Abraham, a widowed merchant, leaves the familiar confines of the Venice ghetto and embarks on a trade journey to the mysterious East. A stranger in a strange land, his only link to his old life is in the daily letters that he writes home. Filled at first with trepidation at the unfamiliar culture, Abraham is initially repulsed by his host's insistent request that he perform a traditional custom: a foreigner's act of service to Peguan husbands is to initiate their brides on their wedding night. For religious (and moral) reasons, Abraham finds it difficult to relish his duty, but he performs it, perfunctorily, to help further the interests of his uncle's jewel business. All goes well enough until the night Mya comes for her deflowering. This young bride stirs something in Abraham, and when her husband-to-be dies on the night of the initiation, her in-laws spurn her as cursed. With nowhere to turn, she joins Abraham's household, her letters now adding to his to narrate a wondrous tale of two very different people who find a way to make a home and a life in each other's hearts. (Spring 2008 Selection)
Kirkus Reviews
In cultural journalist Hantover's first novel, a young Venetian Jew, recently widowed, spends 1598-99 in the Burmese kingdom of Pegu, acquiring gems and rediscovering, by way of an unusual cultural custom, his ability to love. Abraham's business in lush, lovely Pegu begins auspiciously. The merchandise is exquisite, and he's assigned a savvy broker who knows a smattering of Italian; despite cultural and religious differences, they embark on a friendship. But trouble lurks. The king is a cruel and impetuous tyrant, for one thing. More immediately, Abraham discovers a native custom he finds bizarre and repellent: The Peguans believe that a foreigner should take the maidenhead of the region's brides-to-be. Worse, Abraham learns this only when a young woman, perfumed with the finest unguents, arrives on his doorstep. He finally relents when he realizes that performing this "service" is necessary if his business is to flourish-it may even help preserve his life. Abraham subsequently takes a path that leads to his falling in love with tragedy-touched Mya, who is shunned when her betrothed dies in prenuptial revelry while she's with Abraham. Hantover's best and subtlest move is the way he uses Abraham's devout faith to lend the story plausibility. As a Jew in Italy, Abraham is subject to appalling restrictions, forced, for example, to wear a yellow hat as a badge of foreignness; he's an exile at home, himself despised and shunned, and Pegu's relative freedoms have, therefore, great appeal. But despite that and a vivid setting, the book bogs down in its (predictably) treacly and (predictably) tragic second half. Appealing but thin. Agent: Marly Rusoff/Marly Rusoff & Associates

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
Publication date:
P.S. Series
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Product dimensions:
5.36(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.51(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Jewel Trader of Pegu
A Novel

Chapter One

27 September 1598

Dearest Joseph,

I long to wake up on solid ground. The halcyon nests calmly on the waves, but I was born for the stones of our Most Serene City.

You should soon receive a large pouch of letters that I gave to Mordecai Halevi of Mantua, whose niece you know. Since leaving Masulipatnam, I have not encountered any Italian, Gentile, or Israelite with whom I could entrust my letters. Though it may be a year before you read this letter, writing it bears me closer to home. Like a lodestone, my words draw me back to where my heart desires to be. I live in two worlds: the world where I am, whether it be a bark floating down the Euphrates or this ship riding the waves in the Bay of Bengal, and the world where I wish to be, safe among kin and community. During the day I try to imagine where you might be at that hour. In the early morning as I watch the sails being hoisted to catch the wind, I see you dragging your feet slowly across the Campiello della Scuola and rubbing the sleep from your eyes on your way to the synagogue. In the early evening when the light fades, I think of you slapping your thigh to count the beat, calling out to youth more awkward than I the graceful steps of the galliard. Or unrepentant, are you slipping away to find pleasure in a forbidden bed?

Uncle will be proud that I have tried, as he instructed when we were young, to write a letter a day. I imagine those daily letters that traveled but a few feet from my bedroom to his eased him quickly to sleep with their dull depiction of days repetitive and uneventful. I could not twist andtwirl words with his dexterity nor lather my thoughts with allusions so rich and layered that a second letter would be required to make clear the first. If my letters now show some spark, it comes less from my skills as a humble servant of words and more from the strangeness of the world that lies beyond the Lagoon. I have seen enough wonders to turn the Grand Canal black with ink.

I turned twenty-eight at sea, a fact I kept to myself because it was no cause for celebration, especially among strangers with whom I have no history. Well over a year has passed since this journey began and we were together. Though now two years older than you, when I return I should be much more your elder cousin, as I am told one ages rapidly in these climes.

There are still no other Israelites on the ship, but my treatment has been agreeable. Some barely speak to me; but I take no offense because I think perhaps they fear the effort and influx of air may trouble even more their churning stomachs. There are a few, closer to home, whose eyes betray all the ancient fears. Yet for now we Europeans are equal—strangers made one by our discomfort and our hopes for shore and home. Equal in the amusement we provide the Gujaratis, Malays, Siamese, Peguans, and all the other brown-faced heathens aboard; and, if I could understand their tongues, equal, I imagine, in their disdain. We are, in their eyes, big-nosed, hairy barbarians, loud, clumsy, lacking in their quiet grace. Perhaps, cousin, if they saw you dancing the ballo del fiore, they might reconsider a portion of their prejudice and ridicule, but only a portion—you too would be lumped a barbarian with us all, Gentiles and Israelites. I have had to travel half a world away, but triumph at last: though my legs may wobble with the waves, I stand an equal to the Gentiles.

I know you would not be at ease among these heathens. You are happy where you are and were honest in saying that you would never journey so long and so far from all you have ever known. Even Uncle chuckled when you said you could not imagine living among strangers who would not smile when you entered the room or laugh at your jokes. I remember your impatience when Jacob Levi loudly boasted that he was ready for adventure and would gladly leave the next day in my place. You silenced him, perhaps a bit too sharply, saying he knew full well that tomorrow would find him safely at his father's side, under the blue awning of their pawnshop, and his only adventure would be flipping through the pages of the pledge book.

We hug the coast like a child his mother and put into harbor at the least sign of bad weather. North up the Bengal coast and now south along the coast of Burma—you can trace my journey on Uncle's map. Yesterday we lay becalmed near a headland thick with tall palms. The sailors stood upon the deck facing the stiff, lifeless palms and whistled for the wind. I guess they believed this would get the ear of their gods. At first they whistled softly, like aunts cooing over a baby. Then they stamped their bare feet on the deck and between shrill whistles cursed the heavens, or so it seemed by their bulging eyes and grimaces. Their gods remained deaf—or simply lazy.

In the ship's hold, among the tightly packed boxes of cloth we bought in Surat, is red Gujarati cotton I am told the Peguans value highly because the more it is washed the redder it becomes. How nature seems to reverse itself in this part of the world. Soon I shall find a people who are born old and grow younger with each passing year. I have seen on my long journey people who behave in ways fit for the asylum. I have seen people who bow down to cows and paint their houses with the cows' dung, and beggars, thought holy as saints, walking naked in the market, their fingernails long as knife blades, their uncut beards and hair covering their privates. Until you sail beyond the Mediterranean, you have not seen the fullness of humanity.

The Jewel Trader of Pegu
A Novel
. Copyright © by Jeffrey Hantover. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

What People are saying about this

Liza Dalby
“Dreamy and lyrical, steeped in the customs and atmosphere of a world long lost, THE JEWEL TRADER OF PEGU takes the reader on a deep emotional journey through the meanings of what is precious.”
Debra Dean
“A thinking reader’s tale with all the trappings of an exotic historical romance.”

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Hantover has written extensively on social issues, art, and culture for international publications, and his poetry has been published in several U.S. literary journals. He lived in Hong Kong for more than a decade and resides with his wife in New York City.

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The Jewel Trader of Pegu 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 10 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
bleeding_espresso More than 1 year ago
The Jewel Trader of Pegu by Jeffrey Hantover tells the story of Abraham, a young man from Venice who escapes the city's ghetto and restrictions on its Jewish citizens in the fall of 1598. His work takes him to the Burmese kingdom of Pegu, which has a rather unique custom of asking foreign traders to deflower young brides (this, by the way, is historically accurate). And so enters Mya, testing Abraham's faith, good manners, and everything he believes in. Just when he thinks he has those things figured out, Pegu goes under siege, and he has to make even more difficult decisions, including whether to try to smuggle Mya to Venice, a crime that could lead to the deaths of many. I think because of its switching narrative perspectives, it took me a while to get into this book; at about 75 pages in, though, I was hooked, and at that point, there was no stopping me. For several days, I took Abraham and Mya everywhere with me. I couldn't wait to find out what he was learning about himself, Judaism, Catholicism, Mya, and Pegu itself-and how he was expressing it in letters to his cousin Joseph back in Italy. And what was young Mya feeling, in this strange house with a foreign man? The Jewel Trader of Pegu is an extensively researched and beautifully written book. It was surely a great challenge for Hantover to write from the alternating perspectives of Abraham, a 16th century Jew in Venice, and Mya, who is illiterate, but it didn't show at all in the prose-and I consider that a sign of great writing. If you like well-crafted, well-written, compelling stories that delve into cultural differences, historical customs, and the meaning of true love, The Jewel Trader of Pegu absolutely delivers. It wasn't a quick read for me as it had me stopping and thinking every few pages, and that's part of why I enjoyed it so much. I give this book four espresso cups out of five. ~ Michelle Fabio
vivico1 More than 1 year ago
This is Jeffrey Hantover's first book and its great! Set in the 1500's, an Italian ghetto Jew goes to Pegu in Berma to trade and finds so many strange and wonderful things. Its a wonderful love story too and just full of insights. Incredibly interesting and thoughtful story. I can't wait for his next novel!
marc1211 More than 1 year ago
A great little book. i was telling three friends about the book and they all made me stop because they wanted to read it. The author was very descriptive. i could visualize the characters and places so well. The book takes place in letters to a cousin. I liked this way of telling a story. Loved it!!!
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Guest More than 1 year ago
This book I learned so much I didn't have a clue about. Old Customs of old far away lands is one. Also I learned About People that endure major hurdles and come out ahead.Also Traditions and customs that people carry out century after century with major consequences on their lives. The scenic beauty of this novel is also an amazing asset reading it. The quite descriptive pose the author offers to his readers is another asset. Just a awesome read that I do not feel you would regret. I feel this novel will linger in your heart for a long time.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The Jewel Trader of Pegu is a small gem: beautifully crafted, delicate, with nuanced facets and sparkling with vivid descriptions. It¿s an oft-told tale: Western man leaves behind the corrupt and stifling world he knows to seek escape and love in the East. But it has never been told from this perspective and seldom with such lyrical flair. We learn the story through the letters of Abraham, a sixteenth-century Italian Jew whose world has literally been limited by the high walls and bricked up windows of the Venetian ghetto. We learn that Abraham himself is no less responsible for the prison in which he lives: losing his wife and child early in his marriage he has shut himself down and forgotten how to take pleasure. On an assignment from his Uncle, a jewel dealer, he travels to the far reaches of Pegu in the kingdom of Burma to seek a fortune in gems. The sights, sounds and customs of Pegu reawaken Abraham's senses. He is intoxicated by the freedom to walk the streets, now just one foreigner among many, rather than marked out as a Jew. Pegu is a place both magical and terrifying, a place of fragrant teas on late-afternoon verandahs and spiked fruit bursting with succulent milk. But it is also a place where elephants are pampered while entire villages starve, and women and children hung by their feet to choke on their own blood. Abraham is aghast at the savagery and superstitions of the Peguans but wise enough to know that the place he has left behind is also cruel and tinged with violence. Maintaining his Jewish faith and beliefs, Abraham comes to tolerate and even respect the Peguan vision of the world. This is most radically tested when he is asked to perform an act he sees as barbaric yet this act itself brings him into contact with Mya, who teaches him a lesson in both acceptance and love. For the first time, Abraham is in a position to protect and benefit someone else, and it is a role that transforms him. Hantover¿s novel is a delight not only for its evocations of this strange and beautiful place, but also for Abraham's quiet but profound meditations on faith, tolerance and the connections that bind people in very distant parts of the world. He comes to learn that the riches we find are not always those we seek, and therefore even more valuable.
harstan More than 1 year ago
In 1598 twenty-seven year old Jewish jewel peddler Abraham decides to leave Venice following the death of his wife. His family protests and pleads with him to stay in Venice as they worry about his sitting Shiva on a ship and living amidst gentiles eating non-kosher food. Still ignoring their soulful admonitions, he travels to Pegu, a Burmese kingdom where he opens up an extension of the family business back home by obtaining top of the line gems. --- Abraham is pleased with his the results of his decision to leave Europe as he no longer is incarcerated in a ghetto in Pegu, he can go where he wants when he wants. However, he soon learns that foreigners must perform a duty that will bring good fortune to new brides failure to do so mean expulsion from the country, but that requirement violates Jewish scripture. He also has an attraction to local Mya, but doubts that love is strong enough to overcome their respective religions. --- More a historical character study of predominately two protagonists, THE JEWEL TRADER OF PEGU is a fascinating look at a sixteenth century Jewish European living in an Asian kingdom a stranger in a strange land. The story line is told mostly by his letters to his family in Venice, but also has interesting interludes that provide Mya¿s perspective on some of the same events that Abraham describes. Limited in action fans who appreciate a deep historical look into star-crossed lovers struggling with personal, religious and national differences. --- Harriet Klausner