A Girl’s Best Friend
- The Cryptographer by Tobias Hill
Faber, 263 pp, £12.00, August 2003, ISBN 0 571 21836 9
At 750 °C, a diamond will burn. It combusts perfectly, leaving no residue, no ash. That the world’s hardest substance should be so vulnerable to flames is startling; who would have thought that the most precious family jewels could easily be annihilated in a house fire, transformed into carbon dioxide and a little steam, as unremarkable as an exhaled breath? Then again, a diamond is only carbon (with a skin of hydrogen, one molecule thick): why shouldn’t it be almost as combustible as coal?
I learned this fact from Tobias Hill’s second novel, The Love of Stones (2001), which is a mine of such information. Hill has done his homework, and for those who like this sort of thing, there’s plenty to be got out of the novel. At the centre of the book is a jewel called the Three Brethren: three balas rubies set in gold, arranged in a triangle around a diamond faceted like a pyramid (‘echoing the growth of a raw diamond’), with three pearls at the triangle’s points and a fourth hanging from one of the rubies. It was commissioned as a shoulder-clasp by John the Fearless, Duke of Burgundy, ‘years before his murder’ in 1467, and passed through various hands, including those of Elizabeth I – she can be seen wearing the jewel in the ‘Ermine Portrait’ that hangs in Hatfield House – until it was finally lost in the 19th century. In The Love of Stones, the history of the Three Brethren is told by Katharine Sterne, a young woman who has devoted her adult life to hunting for the jewel. It’s hard to tell how much of what we learn about the Three Brethren is fact, and how much Hill has invented: a cursory Internet search turns up a portrait of John the Fearless wearing a shoulder-clasp that resembles Elizabeth’s brooch in the ‘Ermine Portrait’, but there’s no mention of the Three Brethren other than in discussions of Hill’s novel. This appealing uncertainty places the reader in a similar position to Katharine, who can’t be sure that the jewel still exists.
As well as the history of the Three Brethren, she gives a first-person, present-tense account of the final weeks of her search, as she travels from Istanbul to southern Japan via western Turkey and London. Interspersed with Katharine’s narrative is the third-person, past-tense story of two Jewish brothers, Salman and Daniel Levy, who emigrated from Baghdad to London in the 1830s, taking with them some of the stones from the Three Brethren, which had been broken up in India decades before. Salman, like Katharine, has a love of stones, an obsession that eclipses all else. The intricate plot is well made, its structure consciously echoing the shape of the Three Brethren: the different stories framing and balancing each other, triangular relationships forming and disintegrating. The mystery keeps you reading to the end. There is also pleasure to be got from Hill’s sentences: he has an ear for a well-turned phrase and a talent for memorable images – ‘buntings of peppers drying in the sun, orange and red and old-blood black’; ‘a chair tucked in neat as a shirt’.