Though he navigates erratically within it, Machart has created a dense, vibrant world, achievement enough for his debut.

THE WAKE OF FORGIVENESS

A wager destroys a farm family in this risk-taking first novel about Czech immigrant landowners in early 20th-century South Texas.

Hard men are grabbing land any way they can. Vaclav Skala has been softened by a loving wife, who has borne him three sons, but when she dies giving birth to a fourth (Karel), he reverts to his old self, the hardest of taskmasters. He has his boys, not horses, plow the fields; they will be marked for life by misshapen necks. In 1910, their lives are upended by the arrival of Villaseñor, a hugely rich Mexican looking for land and husbands for his three comely daughters. He proposes a horserace to Vaclav; if he wins, he’ll marry off his girls. Vaclav, confident in his racehorse and Karel’s riding skills, agrees. The race is a fine set piece. Villaseñor, the superior strategist, has already won over the older boys, who will ignore some dirty tricks. Karel loses to Graciela, the Mexican’s youngest. There are recriminations. After a vicious fight, Vaclav banishes his three oldest, who marry the next day. What next? A violent blood feud? Not at all. Machart is after more than stirring melodrama. The cadences of his formal prose, punctuated occasionally by earthy dialogue, tell you that, just as his shuttling between 1910 and 1924 minimizes suspense. He is making a resonant statement about the deformities of a world in which men make the rules, and mothers are dead or powerless. This involves the introduction, in 1924, of benighted twins, teenage brothers, firebugs who have avenged their dead mother by burning to death the father who brutalized her. There is much more, including bootlegging rivalries and a second deadly fire, but the trouble is, Machart fails to integrate plot and theme, and the novel splinters into a variety of episodes, all of them rendered with flair.

Though he navigates erratically within it, Machart has created a dense, vibrant world, achievement enough for his debut.

Pub Date: Oct. 21, 2010

ISBN: 978-0-15-101443-9

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Review Posted Online: Aug. 11, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2010

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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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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