A MASS FOR ARRAS

Szczypiorski (The Beautiful Mrs. Seidenman, 1990) reaches back to an anti-Semitic persecution in 15th-century Brabant for this allegory, first published in Poland in 1970, of the seductive appeal of totalitarianism. Three years after a plague in 1458 wiped out a fifth of its inhabitants, the Burgundian town of Arras is plunged into political frenzy by the death of a horse after its owner was allegedly cursed by his Jewish neighbor Tselus. Arrested and interrogated, Tselus kills himself before charges can be preferred, but the townspeople, seized by rabid anti-Semitism, proceed to rob, exile, and kill not only the local Jews but anyone who expresses sympathy for them, offers criticism of the new orthodoxy of hysteria, or, finally, shows any threateningly aberrant behavior: feeding Jewish citizens, debauchery, conducting scientific dissections. The parallels with the rise of Fascism are obvious, but Szczypiorski, who's after something more subtle, focuses on the running debate between Albert, the holy elder who argues first that purging the town's Jewish presence doesn't purge its evil inclinations—and then, on his deathbed, that he sought to lead the town to freedom through an experience of ``the bitterness of evil''—and the royal bastard Prince David, the absentee Bishop of Utrecht, who begins by speaking for rationality but ends by declaring a ``Sunday of Forgiveness, Cancellation, and Forgetting'' that will render the whole ugly episode null and void. The fulcrum of this debate is a lordly, sensitive student named Jan, who's torn between his loyalty to both Albert and David. Only after he himself is arrested on trumped-up charges does he find his concern for his own and the town's welfare colliding with the need for collective memory, however much in conflict it is with individual experience. But don't be put off by such an abstract summary: this is really a dramatic fable that looks back to Kafka's allegories, and behind them to Dostoyevsky's ``Grand Inquisitor.''

Pub Date: July 1, 1993

ISBN: 0-8021-1173-4

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Grove

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 1993

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An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

THE AUTHENTICITY PROJECT

A group of strangers who live near each other in London become fast friends after writing their deepest secrets in a shared notebook.

Julian Jessop, a septuagenarian artist, is bone-crushingly lonely when he starts “The Authenticity Project”—as he titles a slim green notebook—and begins its first handwritten entry questioning how well people know each other in his tiny corner of London. After 15 years on his own mourning the loss of his beloved wife, he begins the project with the aim that whoever finds the little volume when he leaves it in a cafe will share their true self with their own entry and then pass the volume on to a stranger. The second person to share their inner selves in the notebook’s pages is Monica, 37, owner of a failing cafe and a former corporate lawyer who desperately wants to have a baby. From there the story unfolds, as the volume travels to Thailand and back to London, seemingly destined to fall only into the hands of people—an alcoholic drug addict, an Australian tourist, a social media influencer/new mother, etc.—who already live clustered together geographically. This is a glossy tale where difficulties and addictions appear and are overcome, where lies are told and then forgiven, where love is sought and found, and where truths, once spoken, can set you free. Secondary characters, including an interracial gay couple, appear with their own nuanced parts in the story. The message is strong, urging readers to get off their smartphones and social media and live in the real, authentic world—no chain stores or brands allowed here—making friends and forming a real-life community and support network. And is that really a bad thing?

An enjoyable, cozy novel that touches on tough topics.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-9848-7861-8

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Pamela Dorman/Viking

Review Posted Online: Oct. 27, 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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