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A VIEW OF THE EMPIRE AT SUNSET

A lackluster novel from a great writer.

Another novel with a Brontë connection from the award-winning British author.

Long before she became known for writing the feminist classic Wide Sargasso Sea, the author Jean Rhys was a girl named Ella Gwendolyn Rees Williams. Phillips begins his fictional account of Rhys’ life with her childhood on the island of Dominica, in the British West Indies. In his last book, The Lost Child (2015), Phillips used Wuthering Heights as the inspiration for a modern story about race and colonialism. The connections between Emily Brontë’s life and work and Phillips’ own novel were both rich and subtle. Race and colonialism are key themes, here, too, but their treatment is less thought-provoking, in part because race and colonialism are such obvious factors in Rhys’ biography and her masterpiece. For instance, it comes as no surprise that young Gwendolen’s (this is the spelling Phillips uses) mother doesn’t want her to socialize with the child of “Negro” servants, and Phillips’ depiction of the moment when Gwendolen is forever separated from her friend goes unexamined. Indeed, this novel is, for the most part, written in a blandly expository style, and it often veers dangerously close to cliché. Also, Phillips makes the stylistic choice to refer to his protagonist only as “she” (except when other characters refer to her in dialogue), regardless of any interfering antecedent, and there are many instances in which this is confusing, even for the reader who’s learned to expect it. After The Lost Child, this novel is a bit of a letdown. This is surprising, too, because Rhys led an undeniably unusual life. After she left home—at her parents’ insistence—for England at the age of 16, she studied acting. She spent much of the 1920s in Paris. She had numerous lovers and three husbands. And her oeuvre, though small, has been hugely influential, especially for female writers and academics. Phillips is under no obligation to make his protagonist sensational, of course, but he doesn’t even make her interesting. We get that Gwen is high-strung. We watch as she endures disappointments and tragedies. We see all this as if from a distance. There’s no depth here.

A lackluster novel from a great writer.

Pub Date: May 22, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-374-28361-2

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2018

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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