If Starbucks Coffee was smart, they'd start selling David Liss's new novel THE COFFEE TRADER right alongside all their other caffeinated laced beverages. After winning the 2000 Edgar Award for Best First Novel for A CONSPIRACY OF PAPER, Liss has created another masterpiece relating to the historical fiction genre.
His second novel takes place in 17th-century Amsterdam in 1659 during the Golden Age. The book's main character is a Portuguese Jew named Miguel Lienzo, who has recently lost a bundle after the sugar market crash and is now trying to resurrect himself by searching for investors who would consider a new product called "coffee".
Broke and busted, Miguel must take shelter in the basement of his brother's house. Daniel, who also works at the booming commodities exchange, tells his brother not to waste his time vying for a lucrative fortune in the coffee trade. But after learning about the possible financial windfall from the provocative Dutchwoman Geertrud Damhuis, Miguel is utterly convinced that coffee will become a worthwhile investment.
However, being Jewish in Amsterdam during the Golden Age was extremely difficult for any promising entrepreneur. For instance, Miguel must be careful not to scorn the Ma'amad, the restrictive and mysterious governing body of the Jewish community. He must also be wary not to conduct business with anyone who is not Jewish, something extremely forbidden during the mid-1650s. Miguel also has to deal with his bothersome brother Daniel and his mousy wife Hannah, who seems to be falling in love with Miguel. On top of that, he has to deal with Hendrick, a man seething with anti-Semitism and a close associate to his business partner, Geertrud. Throughout the book, Hendrick refers to Miguel as "Jew Man."
During the course of close to 400 pages, I couldn't read THE COFFEE TRADER without either sitting in the kitchen of my apartment and brewing a pot of the luscious black beverage or venturing out to my local Starbucks and ordering a grande Sumatra with room for milk. Even from the opening pages of the novel, Miguel is sitting with Geertrud and she is introducing him to the wonders of coffee. This is where Liss's work truly shines. He does a magnificent job conveying to his audience the allure of coffee and its magical ability to induce mental awareness and intellectual prowess.
Not only is this wonderful novel chock full of suspense, intrigue and a touch of romance, it's also extremely funny at times. For instance, when Daniel's wife, Hannah, who is obviously smitten with Miguel, raids his stash of coffee beans instead of attempting to brew them in a conventional fashion, she chomps on the beans and finds them to be utterly exquisite. Yuck!
Liss also completed exhaustive research before sitting down to write THE COFFEE TRADER, which took a year and a half to finish. At the end of the book, after his Historical Note, is a lengthy Works Consulted section with over 30 books Liss read in order to set the proper tone for this historical piece of fiction. What's most fascinating about Liss's work is his incredible ability to transport the reader back in time. His ability to handle the nuisances of everyday life in Amsterdam over 344 years ago is utterly amazing. Liss paints an incredible landscape in detailing the rising commodities exchange in Amsterdam at that time. He also does an excellent job describing the seediness of pub life and how schemers would spread rumors about ships being looted by pirates in order to decrease the worth of cargo expected to arrive in the nearby docks.
It gets to the point where Miguel doesn't exactly know who to trust and, in some ways, THE COFFEE TRADER emulates the risks that investors take today in dealing with high finance.
If you are a coffee fanatic like myself, then by all means go out and get yourself a copy of THE COFFEE TRADER, head to your nearest coffee shop and hunker down with this incredible saga.
Reviewed by David Exum on January 21, 2011
The Coffee Trader