Southern storytelling is alive and well in Watson’s capable hands. An excellent debut.

THE HEAVEN OF MERCURY

A seamless interweaving of narrative, remembrance, dreaming, and fantasy unifies a wealth of colorful tragicomic material—in a superb first novel by the Alabama storywriter (Last Days of the Dog-Men, 1996).

Central protagonist Finus Bates is the octogenarian editor of his hometown newspaper, The Mercury Comet, and sometime radio personality—and, through the long years of an unhappy marriage and unmitigated grief over his only son’s early death, the unfulfilled lover of Birdie Wells Urquhart, whom Finus has adored ever since he accidentally saw her naked many decades earlier. Watson sets their unaccomplished relationship within a roiling context that embraces such melodramatic local phenomena as the tomcatting prowess of Birdie’s unfaithful husband Earl and his appalling father Junius; the stunted growth to manhood of Parnell Grimes, inheritor of both his father’s funeral parlor and the persuasive rumor that the latter had prospered by “selling bodies and body parts to the Atomic Energy Commission”; and the secrets kept by Birdie’s resentful black housemaid Creasie and the latter’s spooky Aunt Vish, a healer and witch-woman whom Faulkner might have created. The Southern Gothic detail is both shuddery and deliciously absurd, but the real strength of the novel lies in its flexible structure, which allows us to overhear details of Mercury’s overheated history as pieced together by several involved observers, and in Watson’s delicate comprehension of the subtle gradations of aging and change as the years pass, Mercury’s people settle into the grooves life seems to have reserved for them, and the boundaries separating black from white, humans from animals, the living from the dead, appear to blur and dissolve. Finus and Birdie are marvelous creations, and Watson surrounds them with such agreeable grotesques as Parnell Grimes’s death-obsessed soulmate Selena Oswald and Mercury’s unofficial intellectual elder, morose, moribund Euple Scarbrough.

Southern storytelling is alive and well in Watson’s capable hands. An excellent debut.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2002

ISBN: 0-393-04757-1

Page Count: 288

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2002

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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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THE COLDEST WINTER EVER

Debut novel by hip-hop rap artist Sister Souljah, whose No Disrespect (1994), which mixes sexual history with political diatribe, is popular in schools country-wide. In its way, this is a tour de force of black English and underworld slang, as finely tuned to its heroine’s voice as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple. The subject matter, though, has a certain flashiness, like a black Godfather family saga, and the heroine’s eventual fall develops only glancingly from her character. Born to a 14-year-old mother during one of New York’s worst snowstorms, Winter Santiaga is the teenaged daughter of Ricky Santiaga, Brooklyn’s top drug dealer, who lives like an Arab prince and treats his wife and four daughters like a queen and her princesses. Winter lost her virginity at 12 and now focuses unwaveringly on varieties of adolescent self-indulgence: sex and sugar-daddies, clothes, and getting her own way. She uses school only as a stepping-stone for getting out of the house—after all, nobody’s paying her to go there. But if there’s no money in it, why go? Meanwhile, Daddy decides it’s time to move out of Brooklyn to truly fancy digs on Long Island, though this places him in the discomfiting position of not being absolutely hands-on with his dealers; and sure enough the rise of some young Turks leads to his arrest. Then he does something really stupid: he murders his wife’s two weak brothers in jail with him on Riker’s Island and gets two consecutive life sentences. Winter’s then on her own, especially with Bullet, who may have replaced her dad as top hood, though when she selfishly fails to help her pregnant buddy Simone, there’s worse—much worse—to come. Thinness aside: riveting stuff, with language so frank it curls your hair. (Author tour)

Pub Date: April 1, 1999

ISBN: 0-671-02578-3

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Pocket

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 1999

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