David Liss's latest novel, Day of Atonement, brings us to Lisbon in 1755. Sebastian Fox/Sebastiao Raposa, born in Lisbon, has lived in England for ten years and been trained by Benjamin Weaver, the ex-boxer/private investigator who features in several of Liss's earlier novels. Sebastian has returned to Lisbon to get revenge on the priest who, as part of the Inquisition, caused him to lose everything and flee when he was a boy. The novel chronicles Sebastian's efforts to build a network of business contacts that will enable him to accomplish his goals. What he discovers over time is that what seemed like a simple task becomes an extremely complicated project.
This is a very good novel: I felt throughout as though a master craftsman was unfolding a story at just the right pace, and in a manner that pulled me along. Liss is not only an excellent writer, he's also a close observer: he doesn't describe everything and every place in great detail, but he often provides a couple of subtle details that give a very specific quality to the scene.
One of the key elements of the novel is the development of Sebastian's self-awareness: as the novel progress, Sebastian realizes that he often misjudges people. Liss shows this through several different encounters Sebastian has, and we watch as the simple world that Sebastian has imagined crumbles and a much more difficult one emerges. If Sebastian, at the beginning of the novel, is supremely confident in his ability to avenge his loss through his superior physical skills, by the end he knows that those skills, while important, cannot be used to sort out difficult moral problems. The novel doesn't end with Sebastian having a miraculous epiphany and transforming himself completely. He has realized that his self-confidence and belief in the rightness of his cause are naive and based on his immature, myopic view of the world. It's not quite a coming-of-age novel, but Sebastian has matured significantly, and Liss does a fine job of showing us the process that leads to this outcome.
The plot of the novel is straightforward: Liss does not introduce a large number of narrative threads that ultimately he needs to tie up at the end. He does maintain, however, a level of complexity that requires the reader read attentively more than a page-turner would require. I suspect that Liss will follow this novel with another about Sebastian London; I would be interested to see how a mature version of Sebastian would move through the world.