Incantation by Alice Hoffman: Review


Synopsis from Goodreads: Estrella is a Marrano: During the time of the Spanish Inquisition, she is one of a community of Spanish Jews living double lives as Catholics. And she is living in a house of secrets, raised by a family who practices underground the ancient and mysterious way of wisdom known as kabbalah. When Estrella discovers her family’s true identity–and her family’s secrets are made public–she confronts a world she’s never imagined, where new love burns and where friendship ends in flame and ash, where trust is all but vanquished and betrayal has tragic and bitter consequences.
Infused with the rich context of history and faith, in her most profoundly moving work to date, Alice Hoffman’s first historical novel is a transcendent journey of discovery and loss, rebirth and remembrance.

Source: Purchase

My Rating: 5/5 stars

My Review: I picked up Alice Hoffman’s Incantation on a whim while at my local used bookstore. This book was meant to be my no pressure, no review, just for the hell of it read and then I devoured it in two very, very late night sittings and realized I have to review this book.  Incantation is the tragic and heartbreaking story of Estrella de Madrigal and her struggle to remember who and what she is in a time when who and what she is, was simply not allowed.

Though Estrella is a fictional character her story is one that is based on the facts of the Spanish Inquisition.  During this dark period of human history, it was essentially illegal for Jews to be Jews in Spain.  Under the direction of Tomas de Torquemada, Jews were forced to convert to the Christian faith, flee their homes, or risk being tortured and killed if caught practicing their faith.  While Estrella is certainly disturbed by what she is seeing and hearing in her village she knows, without doubt, that this horror cannot touch her family.  It simply cannot, she and her family are Christians.  As dark rumors, gossip, and speculation begin to turn neighbor against neighbor, suddenly Estrella is forced to consider that everything she thought she knew about herself and her family is wrong.

Is it possible that her family is actually Jewish?  As Estrella begins to look back over the years of her short life the pieces of a newly-discovered and very dangerous puzzle begin to fall into place.  There is the fact that her family eats no pork, they light the candles every Friday evening, they cross themselves differently than do their neighbors and there are times when family members (including Estralla) are called by different, secret names.  For Estrella these discoveries are as fascinating as they are dangerous.  As the accusations and arrests increase dramatically, Estrella understands that she has precious little time to understand the history of her family and her people and decide if she will stand with them and their shared history.  Estrella must decide if she is willing to give up everything she has ever known and loved for the sake of her family and her faith.

Had I started this book any earlier in the night I would have completed it in a single sitting.  The plot is as powerful as it is heartbreaking and every character brings something to the table.  There are no weaknesses in the cast of characters; you love some and hate others but you undoubtedly see how each plays his/her role perfectly.  Each scene and every chapter are crafted rather than simply written and all pull the reader in instantaneously.  It is ridiculously easy to become emotionally invested in these characters and their story.  This story made me angry, anxious, sad (yes, I cried), and it gave me cold chills up my spine.  With that being said, it is important to note there are bright moments of beauty in this book as well.  At the end of the day the message is clear: though times are often dangerous and frightening hope and love are equally powerful forces.

The Bottom Line: Make no mistake, because of the subject matter alone this is not an easy book to read but it is beyond being well worth the time and the emotional investment.  The plot and the characters are flawless.  As for the writing style?  When I consider Hoffman’s writing style I see in my head a mature and beautiful woman, finely dressed, and carrying herself with a grace that is a part of her rather than being something she has learned.  In short, Hoffman’s writing style is elegant and suits the subject matter of Incantation perfectly.  A phenomenal read!

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