An absorbing and captivating novel that bridges the uncomfortable political gap between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

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THE DEBBA

In his first novel, Mandelman (Talking to the Enemy: stories, 2005) writes of identity, intrigue, Israeli politics and murder.

On learning of the murder of his father, David Starkman, an ex-pat now living in Canada, returns to Israel to find that his father’s will has put him under an unusual obligation—to produce a play, The Debba, within 45 days of his father’s death, a play that had been performed only once before, in 1946, and had at that time created a riot. (A debba is a mythical shape-changing beast from Arab culture, one that can turn from a hyena into a man. While Arabs see it in heroic terms, Israelis see it as inflaming political tensions.) Starkman is so bitter about being both Israeli and being his father’s son that at first he willingly forgoes the opportunity to produce the play even though he will only realize his modest legacy of $65,000 if he meets the theatrical obligation. He believes it’s just not worth the trouble, but after reading the play he begins to get intrigued by the possibilities. In Canada he left behind his girlfriend, Jenny, but once back in his home country he begins a torrid affair with Ruthy, an old flame (also an actress) now engaged to be married to his best friend Ehud. The novel follows multiple narrative threads, from policemen trying to crack the case of the father’s violent end to the endless difficulties of getting the play on the boards. Actors are threatened or physically assaulted, possible venues for staging the play are vandalized, young Israelis—followers of radical rabbi Meyer Kahane—protest the whole idea of putting on the drama…and this action plays out against the backdrop of the 1977 Israeli elections. Through it all Starkman perseveres, moving from cynical indifference to rabid commitment. Along the way he finds out secrets about his identity and especially about his father’s past.

An absorbing and captivating novel that bridges the uncomfortable political gap between the Palestinian and Israeli sides.

Pub Date: July 13, 2010

ISBN: 978-1-59051-370-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: June 3, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2010

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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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