A Jewish refugee family arrives in 1939 Paris after a series of hairbreadth escapes in this sequel historical novel.
On the run from Nazis in Prague, the physically and psychologically traumatized Kohut family has arrived safely in the City of Light, just in time for France’s entry into World War II. In this follow-up to his semiautobiographical debut novel, The Dragontail Buttonhole (2016), Curtis picks up the story of Sophie and her husband, Willie, a displaced clothier, and their infant son, Pavel, exactly where the last installment left them. Sophie is traumatized but unbroken, young Pavel is hungry, and Willie faces the challenge of reuniting with his mother and father in England while dealing with “a crushed finger, a slashed chest and empty pockets.” Booted from their fleabag hotel by its Nazi-sympathizer owner, the Kohuts soon find that their mere presence in France is illegal: if they’re discovered, Sophie and Pavel will be sent to a refugee camp and Willie to prison. While in Paris, they survive on a couple of pawned gold coins and the occasional half-truth; in Germany, Willie had learned that “deception was an essential skill for refugees on the run.” As Sophie finds a surrogate family at the Café Budapest, Willy volunteers for France’s army of Czech exiles and does his best to contend with the “rough, vulgar camaraderie” of the ragtag recruits. Both main characters suffer unexpected joys and real dangers in their travails—including an especially sticky moment involving Pablo Picasso. The story becomes even more emotionally heightened and complex when Willy and Sophie learn of a particular man from their past in their midst. As in Curtis’ last novel, there’s a poignant and arresting precision in the descriptions that make events from 80 years in the past feel immediate: “Even the taxis-bicyclettes that carried two passengers with a child on their lap charged the equivalent of ten fresh eggs.” Indeed, there’s not a wasted word to be found in the smoothly paced text. Readers will also find themselves absorbed by the book’s gradually building suspense as the characters experience both good fortune and jeopardy.
A heart-rending, pellucid story of wartime survival.
Pub Date: April 2, 2018
Page count: 444pp
Review Posted Online: Jan. 1, 2018
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018
Curtis’ debut novel tells of a family’s flight through Europe, moments ahead of the Nazi war machine.
This story is semiautobiographical—or at least one of the characters is. Curtis’ alter ego, the infant Pavel Kohut, is safely born to a successful family of clothiers and the “bourgeois life of servants, fashions, and Prague’s social whirl” but soon finds himself in peril. His father, Willy, an importer of British textiles and an unapologetic Anglophile, is arrested by the Gestapo on suspicion of espionage. It’s 1939, and the Nazis have marched into Czechoslovakia unopposed. Friends become collaborators, Willy’s shop is appropriated, and Willy is beaten in prison until he appears to himself “a humiliated, disgusting wreck.” Sophie, Pavel’s mother, must prostrate herself before one sinister bureaucracy after another to try to learn her husband’s whereabouts, even enduring blackmail and rape (“the emotional damage of giving herself to this swine would haunt her forever”). When she does eventually track Willy down in Pankrác Prison, shut in with a corpse, she and her husband face the joint task of evading the Nazis and ferrying their young son to safety somewhere in the unoccupied West. Their flight brings them new identities, treacherous comrades, and further degradation. Curtis could have made his book a by-the-numbers thriller, but it’s too unblinkingly realistic to work as a potboiler. This is a serious novel about the most serious things in life; as Willy and Sophie travel farther from their home, increasingly stripped of their possessions, their senses of self at sea, they must continually re-evaluate who they are and what matters in their lives. Curtis is exceptionally good at depicting the strain and fractures of a marriage under constant violation from the outside, and both Willy and Sophie evolve and change convincingly through the book. This is a book to be read in sobriety and one that will leave its readers more sober still.
A suspenseful, convincing account of the hardships that Jews and refugees faced in a terrible war.
Pub Date: March 15, 2016
Page count: 316pp
Publisher: Sordelet Ink
Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2016
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016
This final installment of a historical fiction trilogy chronicles the travails of a family uprooted from its Czech home during World War II.
In 1940, Sophie Kohut’s predicament is grim. Having fled Prague, she now lives in London with her 4-year-old son, Pavel, under the constant threat of German air raids. In addition, she’s at perpetual loggerheads with her in-laws, with whom she lodges, Emil and Judit, well-intentioned but also imperious, intrusive, and endlessly judgmental. Meanwhile, Sophie’s husband, Willy, a soldier in the Czechoslovak Army-in-Exile, is stationed in Malpas. He is part of a group of “mutineers” disgruntled by their shameful mistreatment—especially Jews, like Willy, who are ostracized by the British-recognized Czech president, Edvard Beneš. The London Blitz only grows worse, and as a consequence, Emil turns to family friend George Kindell to help him relocate the Kohuts to safer territory. George agrees to orchestrate their flight to Cambridge and even promises to help Willy join the British army, but only if he will vigilantly gather information on Communist sympathizers in his ranks, especially one particularly brutal sort, Leopold Povídka. The family members are ultimately scattered despite their best efforts to remain together—Willy to serve in the British Royal Engineers, Sophie to run a cafe, and young Pavel to live with other children out in the country under the hateful tutelage of his custodian, Mrs. McAlistair. Curtis (Café Budapest, 2018, etc.) magisterially captures the toll war inevitably takes on even the strongest families, a lesson powerfully expressed by Sophie when her frustration with her disapproving in-laws reaches a tipping point: “I admit I’ve changed—just like you. I’m no longer obedient or perfectly behaved—but Willy, Pavel, and I survived. Nazis, hunger, fear, not knowing what to do next.” In addition, Pavel’s callow naiveté supplies a unique roost from which to view human degradation. Like the protagonist in Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, he’s totally unencumbered by ideology or historical identity and so experiences his suffering from a perch of unvarnished innocence. Curtis continues to artfully braid literary poignancy with potent historical witness in this achingly realistic tale.
A heartbreakingly beautiful drama about the wages of survival.
Page count: 465pp
Publisher: Kurti Publishing
Review Posted Online: Oct. 31, 2019
Kirkus Star: CAFÉ BUDAPEST
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