A Canopy of Stars by Stephen Taylor

A chance encounter, an unlikely romance …

London, 1823.  David Neander, a young Jewish immigrant, is on trial for his life at the Old Bailey.  His crime?  He has been charged with the theft of half of a sheep carcass.  Julia Carmichael is in the public gallery that day: she clerks for her lawyer father but is unable to sit in the court.  While waiting for her father’s case, she sees David’s case.  She sees the case of a young man, with limited English, found guilty and condemned to death.  Julia decides that she wants to help him. Can she save his life?

The story moves between David and Julia in London in 1823 and David’s previous life in Frankfurt (1819) and Dortmund (1821).  In London, David is granted a retrial, but the odds seem to be stacked against him.

In those chapters set in Frankfurt and Dortmund we learn about the discrimination David has faced, and the tragic consequences for his family of antisemitic riots in Frankfurt.  Heartbreaking.  But David does not want to share details of his past with Julia, which makes it difficult for her to try to organise his defence – especially when the same judge who sentenced him to death is presiding over his second trial.

While I enjoyed this story, which takes some details from a case of theft in 1790, the characters never really came to life for me.  For example, even allowing for fictional licence, I found it difficult to accept Julia having quite as much autonomy as the story allows.  I found David’s story heartbreakingly sad, but I struggled at times to ‘see’ the character behind the description.

Note: My thanks to NetGalley and Sapere Books for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book for review purposes. 

Jennifer Cameron-Smith