Vivid, layered, and provocative period drama about the trade-offs of backing tradition versus letting go.

WE THAT ARE LEFT

Twice longlisted for the Orange Prize for stories set in distant eras, Clark (The Great Stink, 2005; Savage Lands, 2010, etc.) takes on the dicey task of revitalizing Edwardian aristocrats grappling with the heir loss and social change ushered in by World War I.

The ancestral wick of Sir Aubry Melville and his wife— Eleanor to her extramarital companions—coils to ash with the death of their only son, Theo, killed in France before his Christmas letter arrives. Missing her golden boy, Eleanor consorts with spiritualists. “I’m not sure hush is what Eleanor’s after,” her mouthy youngest child, Jessica, snipes to a condolence caller. “She prefers the dead jabbering 19 to the dozen.” Ignored (as always) by their mother, and with presentation at court and weekend gaiety no longer an option—“Every man you might have married is already dead”—Theo’s teenage sisters, Phyllis and Jessica (call them Sense and Sensibility), plot their pacts with the new normal: the elder girl ducks her duty to reproduce by volunteering at a convalescent hospital, then pursues a degree in archaeology, leaving the younger trapped with their table-rocking mother and a father preoccupied by the future of Ellinghurst, the crumbling pile which by tradition must pass to males with the Melville surname. In doubt of ever being allowed to start her own life, 19-year-old Jessica bolts and cadges a job in London as the agony aunt columnist for a new women’s magazine. Clark reminds us that one of the pleasures of reading historical fiction is meeting characters whose thoughts are their own but also mirror the wrongdoings and legacies of their time. We commiserate with Jessica for having to jolly older men, only because they vastly outnumber the age-appropriate ones. She does her best to torment her mother’s godson, Oskar Grunewald, the most insightful of their childhood set. A math prodigy and hopeless stick-in-the-mud (by Jessica’s estimate, though not her sister’s), Oskar faces his own wartime challenge—his German heritage could scrub his chance of working with his scientific idol at Cambridge. Ironically, his loyalty to the Melvilles poses a greater threat to his career.

Vivid, layered, and provocative period drama about the trade-offs of backing tradition versus letting go.

Pub Date: Oct. 13, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-544-12999-3

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

Review Posted Online: July 15, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2015

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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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