Vivid prose isn’t enough to lift this book from its own excruciating depths.

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CAGING SKIES

An avid young Hitler supporter discovers that his parents have been hiding a Jewish girl in their house. 

Johannes Betzler is a child in Vienna when Hitler comes to power and Austria votes for annexation. In school, he learns that “our race, the purest, didn’t have enough land” but that “the Führer had trust in us, the children; we were his future.” Johannes joins the Jungvolk and, once he’s old enough, the Hitler Youth. At home, meanwhile, his parents grow more and more discomfited; they’re quietly opposed to the Nazi party but well aware of the danger they’d be in if they voiced their opposition—even to their own son. Then, as a teenager, Johannes is maimed by a bomb, losing a hand and part of his cheekbone. Wounded, he returns home, where for months he is bedridden, alone in the house with his mother and grandmother. Increasingly, his father is—mysteriously—gone. His mother seems to be acting oddly and, finally, Johannes discovers the reason why: There is a girl, a Jewish girl, hidden upstairs in a secret partition. This is where Leunens’ (Primordial Soup, 2002) novel takes off. Johannes becomes increasingly fixated upon Elsa. At first, her existence prompts him to question his devotion to Hitler—is he betraying the Führer by not reporting his parents?—but as time goes on, and as Johannes’ preoccupation with Elsa grows more sexual, these doubts fade. Leunens is a strong writer, her prose supple and darkly engaging. Her depiction of wartime Vienna is nearly cinematic and utterly convincing. But it isn’t clear if Johannes is meant to be a sympathetic character, and as the novel goes on, and his choices grow more and more disturbing, it becomes harder to sympathize with him. Nor does he change, exactly, over the course of the book, although his circumstances certainly do. Ultimately, it’s unclear what Leunens’ larger purpose is. This is a dark, disturbing novel—but to what end?

Vivid prose isn’t enough to lift this book from its own excruciating depths.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4197-3908-8

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Overlook

Review Posted Online: May 13, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2019

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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