A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss.

THE LAST FLIGHT OF POXL WEST

Elijah Goldstein's devoted Uncle Poxl is a Jewish World War II fighter pilot and an overnight literary sensation. What more could a boy want?

While Torday (The Sensualist: A Novella, 2012) is more likely to be compared to Philip Roth or Michael Chabon than Gillian Flynn, his debut novel has two big things in common with Gone Girl—it's a story told in two voices, and it's almost impossible to discuss without revealing spoilers. The reversal that defines this novel arrives late and changes the meaning of everything that's come before, but that's all you'll hear about it here. One of the two narrators is Elijah Goldstein, a 15-year-old student in Boston, who begins his tale, promisingly, like this: "Before halftime on Super Bowl Sunday, January 1986, my uncle Poxl came over. He was just months from reaching the height of his fame, and unaware that the game was being played." This fame results from publication of Skylock: The Memoir of a Jewish RAF Bomber, which Uncle Poxl has read aloud to Eli in manuscript over sundaes at Cabot's after outings to the opera and the symphony. The entire text of Skylock appears here as a book within a book. Poxl's memoir opens with his childhood in Czechoslovakia, where he's the son of a wealthy leather-factory owner and a bohemian mother who poses nude for Egon Schiele. When the Anschluss begins, his parents send him to Rotterdam, where he falls hard for a prostitute. His next move takes him to London, where he joins the war effort and ultimately flies a bomber in a firefight over Hamburg. After each section of the memoir, Eli returns to fill us in on reviews in the Times and the Economist, the book signings and the things we will not be discussing in this review.

A richly layered, beautifully told and somehow lovable story about war, revenge and loss.

Pub Date: March 17, 2015

ISBN: 978-1-250-05168-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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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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Constructed with delicacy, lyricism, and care, Hertmans’ novel still feels occasionally static.

THE CONVERT

A Christian woman and a Jewish man fall in love in medieval France.

In 1088, a Christian girl of Norman descent falls in love with the son of a rabbi. They run away together, to disastrous effect: Her father sends knights after them, and though they flee to a small southern village where they spend a few happy years, their budding family is soon decimated by a violent wave of First Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem. The girl, whose name becomes Hamoutal when she converts to Judaism, winds up roaming the world. Hertmans’ (War and Turpentine, 2016, etc.) latest novel is based on a true story: The Cairo Genizah, a trove of medieval manuscripts preserved in an Egyptian synagogue, contained an account of Hamoutal’s plight. Hamoutal makes up about half of Hertmans’ novel; the other half is consumed by Hertmans’ own interest in her story. Whenever he can, he follows her journey: from Rouen, where she grew up, to Monieux, where she and David Todros—her Jewish husband—made a brief life for themselves, and all the way to Cairo, and back. “Knowing her life story and its tragic end,” Hertmans writes, “I wish I could warn her of what lies ahead.” The book has a quiet intimacy to it, and in his descriptions of landscape and travel, Hertmans’ prose is frequently lovely. In Narbonne, where David’s family lived, Hertmans describes “the cool of the paving stones in the late morning, the sound of doves’ wings flapping in the immaculate air.” But despite the drama of Hamoutal’s story, there is a static quality to the book, particularly in the sections where Hertmans describes his own travels. It’s an odd contradiction: Hertmans himself moves quickly through the world, but his book doesn’t quite move quickly enough.

Constructed with delicacy, lyricism, and care, Hertmans’ novel still feels occasionally static.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4708-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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