O’Hagan’s accomplished prose and casual wit counterbalance his abstraction, aided by fine character portraits, especially...

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BE NEAR ME

An impeccably crafted, philosophically framed account of the decline and disgrace of an impressionable Catholic priest.

U.K. author O’Hagan (Personality, 2003, etc.) turns to questions of insight in a beautiful but ruined 21st-century landscape. The protagonist, father David Anderton, is a 56-year-old, half-English, half-Scottish intellectual and aesthete whose tastes for Chopin, Proust and French cuisine sit uneasily with his Scottish parishioners, a wasteland of alcoholic men and dehumanized youth. Anderton, whose claim to have tasted the fullness of life rests on a gay relationship with a political firebrand during the 1960s, has a weakness for stronger personalities, and now falls in with a charismatic teenage trouble-maker, 15-year-old Mark McNulty, who leads the priest into tolerating, then sampling, drugs, and eventually to a stolen kiss. Arrest and criminal charges of sexual abuse follow, forcing Anderton to review his life in the church—“a beautiful hiding place” of increasing appeal after his lover’s early death. O’Hagan deftly juxtaposes absurdly precious scenes of Oxford elitism with a harsh vision of the Scottish provinces, where the working class, now all but irrelevant, has sunk into an existence shaped by booze, mass culture, tribalism and media-fuelled prejudice, as evidenced by the modern witch-hunt that ensues. After Anderton’s trial and conviction comes a coda in which the death, from cancer, of his housekeeper—who doubled as his conscience—opens up an assessment of the nature of love and individual integrity.

O’Hagan’s accomplished prose and casual wit counterbalance his abstraction, aided by fine character portraits, especially that of an intellectually acute but isolated soul condemned by his own fallibility.

Pub Date: June 4, 2007

ISBN: 0-15-101303-9

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Harcourt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2007

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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