Rich material. Wan execution.

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ORPHANS OF THE CARNIVAL

What does it mean to be human?

In 2013, the body of Julia Pastrana was buried in her home state of Sinaloa, Mexico, more than 150 years after she died from a postpartum infection. Before she was finally laid to rest, her carefully preserved corpse carried on a version of the career she had known in life. Born with a rare condition that gave her thick hair on her face and body, Pastrana had traveled the United States and Europe as a human oddity, and people still paid to gawp at her body after her death. This is fertile material for a storyteller, of course, and familiar territory for Birch. Her last book, Jamrach’s Menagerie (a Man Booker Prize finalist in 2011), follows a boy hired to care for exotic animals in 19th-century London. Both novels explore the Victorian taste for the strange and the disturbing. Julia arrives in the U.S. during what might be called a golden age for freak shows, and this novel is full of singular performers. Birch is careful, though, to render them as actual people. Julia herself embodies the disconnect between appearances—or what we think we can learn from appearances—and reality that runs through the book. She is billed as a human-animal hybrid, but she sings with grace. What thrills the audience is the contrast between her simian face and the very human, recognizably feminine, voice that comes out of it. Birch’s prose is, throughout, cautious and quiet. Eventually, though, her efforts to avoid the sensational become a liability. Beneath the surface, Julia just isn’t terribly interesting, and neither are the secondary characters that surround her. The narrative succeeds in giving readers a sense of how tedious it is to be a traveling act, but this doesn’t exactly make for a spellbinding tale, and Julia’s own reflections on her unique life aren’t terribly interesting. Theodore Lent—the man who will become her husband, her manager, and the custodian of her corpse—adds some drama, but his introduction comes late in the book. And the modern-day story woven into Julia’s distracts without adding anything.

Rich material. Wan execution.

Pub Date: Nov. 8, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-385-54152-7

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Nov. 1, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2016

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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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A gut-wrenching debut.

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MY DARK VANESSA

The #MeToo movement forces a struggling young woman to confront the abusive relationship that defines her sexual and romantic past.

At 15, Vanessa Wye falls for her English teacher at Browick, a private boarding school. Jacob Strane is 42, "big, broad, and so tall that his shoulders hunch as though his body wants to apologize for taking up so much space." Strane woos Vanessa with Nabokov's novels, Plath's poetry, and furtive caresses in his back office. "I think we're very similar, Nessa," Strane tells her during a one-on-one conference. "I can tell from the way you write that you're a dark romantic like me." Soon, Vanessa is reveling in her newfound power of attraction, pursuing sleepovers at Strane's house, and conducting what she feels is a secret affair right under the noses of the administration. More than 15 years later, at the height of the #MeToo movement, Taylor Birch, another young woman from Browick, publicly accuses Strane of sexual abuse. When a young journalist reaches out to Vanessa to corroborate Taylor's story, Vanessa's world begins to unravel. "Because even if I sometimes use the word abuse to describe certain things that were done to me, in someone else's mouth the word turns ugly and absolute....It swallows me and all the times I wanted it, begged for it," Vanessa tells herself. Russell weaves Vanessa's memories of high school together with the social media–saturated callout culture of the present moment, as Vanessa struggles to determine whether the love story she has told about herself is, in fact, a tragedy of unthinkable proportions. Russell's debut is a rich psychological study of the aftermath of abuse, and her novel asks readers both to take Vanessa's assertions of agency at face value and to determine the real, psychological harm perpetrated against her by an abusive adult. What emerges is a devastating cultural portrait of enablement and the harm we allow young women to shoulder. "The excuses we make for them are outrageous," Vanessa concludes about abusive men, "but they're nothing compared with the ones we make for ourselves."

A gut-wrenching debut.

Pub Date: March 10, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-06-294150-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 19, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2019

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