Unsworth returns to themes of greed and human rights in this potent sequel to his 1992 Booker Prize–winning novel Sacred Hunger.

Set in 1767, two years after that epic novel on the British slave trade, this is a slimmer, somewhat less ambitious book. But it still has plenty of intellectual heft; Unsworth remains obsessed with exploring the rationalizations and conditional ethics that permit elites to abuse laborers. Erasmus Kemp, one of the lead characters of Sacred Hunger, returns here with two ambitions: to receive financial compensation from the slaves lost on his father’s ship, and to acquire a coal mine that survives in part on the backs of child labor. Kemp is on the wrong side of history in both cases, but Unsworth doesn’t apply the modern reader’s moral certainties to his characters. For instance, Kemp’s legal adversary is Frederick Ashton, an avowed abolitionist, but Ashton bristles at the notion of equality among races; he simply wants black slaves to be free to return to their homelands. A series of lighter subplots run under that main dispute. Sullivan, a crew member from the Kemp family’s slave ship, escapes from prison and goes on a picaresque Grand Tour of England’s underclass; Michael Bordon, born into a mining family, considers a way to acquire his family’s freedom; and Kemp attempts to woo Ashton’s sister, even though their politics diverge. Unsworth’s knowledge of British history, from abolitionism to mining to courts and commerce, is assured and convincing, as is his ear for dialect; his characters’ places on the class ladder become explicit whenever they speak. The novel’s closing pages feel thinner as Unsworth ties together various plot threads, but the message about how much effort is required to effect social justice never feels didactic or unearned. A sturdy historical novel with fewer pages than Sacred Hunger but no less nuance.


Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-53477-2

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Nan A. Talese

Review Posted Online: Dec. 19, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2012

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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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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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A modern day fable, with modern implications in a deceiving simplicity, by the author of Dickens. Dali and Others (Reynal & Hitchcock, p. 138), whose critical brilliance is well adapted to this type of satire. This tells of the revolt on a farm, against humans, when the pigs take over the intellectual superiority, training the horses, cows, sheep, etc., into acknowledging their greatness. The first hints come with the reading out of a pig who instigated the building of a windmill, so that the electric power would be theirs, the idea taken over by Napoleon who becomes topman with no maybes about it. Napoleon trains the young puppies to be his guards, dickers with humans, gradually instigates a reign of terror, and breaks the final commandment against any animal walking on two legs. The old faithful followers find themselves no better off for food and work than they were when man ruled them, learn their final disgrace when they see Napoleon and Squealer carousing with their enemies... A basic statement of the evils of dictatorship in that it not only corrupts the leaders, but deadens the intelligence and awareness of those led so that tyranny is inevitable. Mr. Orwell's animals exist in their own right, with a narrative as individual as it is apt in political parody.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 1946

ISBN: 0452277507

Page Count: 114

Publisher: Harcourt, Brace

Review Posted Online: Nov. 2, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 1946

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