cover image The Ghost of Hannah Mendes

The Ghost of Hannah Mendes

Naomi Ragen. Simon & Schuster, $25 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-684-83393-4

Each of Ragen's previous novels--Jephte's Daughter, Sotah and The Sacrifice of Tamar--focused on a family story within an insular orthodox Jewish community. Here, Ragen weaves an account of a contemporary, thoroughly assimilated New York Jewish family into that of their renowned Sephardic ancestor Hannah Mendes--a true historical personage who lived in Portugal during the 16th century. Through both sets of characters, Ragen examines questions of faith, responsibility and the urgent desire to ensure the continuation of a family line. Both current and historical narratives include tales of passion and romance, but the medieval tale is more literary and engaging. When, in the present, elderly, wealthy Catherine de Costa learns that she is dying, she wants to make sure that her 20-something granddaughters, Suzanne and Francesca, connect meaningfully with their heritage. Catherine manipulates them into searching for long-lost portions of Hannah's memoirs and sends them off to Europe where, as manuscript pages turn up, their ancestor's story begins to come alive. The memoirs include well-researched descriptions of the Spanish Inquisition as well as secret rituals practiced by medieval Jews who had been forced to convert to Christianity. As though fated, each sister meets an appropriate man, one a doctor, the other a professional manuscript hunter. Suspense rises as they each experience dreamlike visitations from Hannah that lead them to self-fulfillment and the embrace of their heritage. Although the plot is somewhat predictable, Ragan's forte is her ability to forge a connection between past and present, while the book adroitly addresses issues of faith and family. (Sept.)