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Cohen, Matt.

Toronto, McClelland and Stewart, c1984. 344pp, cloth, $19.95, ISBN 0-7710-2237-9. CIP

Grades 11 and up
Reviewed by Joan VanSickle Heaton

Volume 13 Number 1
1985 January

Cohen departs from his usual Canadian setting and places this novel in mediaeval Europe, a time when a corrupt Catholic Church is divided and governed by two popes, and when religious loyalty transcends national allegiance. An army of the pope's own supporters enforce devotion to the church: ruthlessness for the sake of the Faith carries the plot through the major cities of European civilization.

The Jews of Toledo enjoy a degree of calm and prosperity within the walls of their ghetto. However, there are an increasing number of assaults upon them. It is during one of these attacks that the novel begins. Attacks throughout France, Spain and Italy drive the Jews to Kiev, far from the land of their alliance with Spain's early Moorish peoples. The Renaissance has not yet begun, not have the Dark Ages faded.

The main character, Avram Halevi, is a doctor and a Marrano or converted Spanish Jew. Actually, he is only half-Jewish to begin with, born as a result of rape during one of the raids on the Jewish quarter in Toledo. Avram has been influenced by an old Moslem teacher and carries with him all the medical knowledge of three cultures. His skill and wisdom make him indispensable to the wealthiest Spanish merchant, even though he is forbidden to practise on Christians. His relationship with Velasquez the merchant is his ticket to a certain degree of immunity from the violence befalling the other Jews; however, he is also exposed to much danger and intrigue through this link.

The story moves quickly, combining elements of romance, passion, pathos and historical detail in a narrative charged with violence and brutality. The lingering impression is a complicated one; in many ways, Europeans have become "civilized" far beyond the level Cohen describes, but a realization of how little progress has been made in specific instances where ignorance and prejudice prevail lurks in the shadows and emerges in the outcome of the story.

The Spanish Doctor is a compelling book, full of exotic facts and human drama. It contains violence integral to the setting but not detrimental to the tone. Recommended for secondary school courses in man in society, history and English.

Joan VanSickle Heaton, Sydenham H.S., Sydenham, Ont.
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