A coming-of-age story that blends excellent prose with a downbeat plot.

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WILD BOAR IN THE CANE FIELD

An orphaned girl lives an eventful life in rural Punjab in Rana’s debut novel.

Tara lives in a Punjabi village with Bibi Saffiya and Saffiya’s servant Amman Bhaggan, who found the infant Tara abandoned on a train. The girl grows up in a position that’s part daughter and part servant, raised alongside Bhaggan’s three sons and Maria, the daughter of laborers who work for Saffiya. Tara is convinced that she deserves the best in life, like the attention of Sultan, Bhaggan’s eldest son, even though he has no interest in her. Her pursuit of him ends in tragedy—one of many in the book. In an effort to avoid becoming the second wife of an abusive man, Tara sleeps with Bhaggan’s second son, Taaj, and ends up marrying the third, Malik, but further losses await the characters, and the book’s final section is narrated by the swarms of flies that have been observing Tara and the other characters throughout their lives: “We, the flies, disentangled ourselves from the bodies and disappeared behind the bushes.” Rana is a vivid writer with a talent for evocative metaphors (“Tea stains are nothing compared with how my life has been marked”), and her prose is full of intimate, detailed descriptions that make the book’s rural setting come to life. The story isn’t a happy one, so readers should expect to encounter a constant stream of malaise throughout the book, which takes place in the somewhat recent past; there are televisions but no computers. Tara’s arrogance (“She looked old, and I felt even more beautiful. But I didn't have enough feelings to feel sorry for her”) makes her both compelling and unsympathetic as a protagonist, and her frequent complaints may wear on the reader. Still, Rana does a fine job of capturing the emotions of the characters, making it a satisfying, if bleak, read.

A coming-of-age story that blends excellent prose with a downbeat plot.

Pub Date: Sept. 17, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63152-668-8

Page Count: 238

Publisher: She Writes Press

Review Posted Online: July 23, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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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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