Affecting characters and dramatic storytelling overcome an occasionally argot-laden plot.

1918

A U.S. physician with a specialty in infectious diseases fights against the 1918 influenza pandemic in Cornish’s debut work of historical fiction.

Maj. Edward Noble, overseeing American soldiers during “The War,” is ordered back to Boston to ensure diseases don’t continue to spike the mortality rate. He soon learns of the high death rate from influenza, which only increases when the virus crops up in other countries and then returns to the States as a much deadlier strain. Dwindling hospital staff and medical supplies are just part of Noble’s troubles. Warning the public of a pandemic isn’t easy when certain powerful people refuse to accept that influenza is a disease. Cornish’s novel has surprisingly few characters considering its scope; it clocks in at more than 750 pages. But keeping the cast manageable proves to be a great asset; it still shows the flu’s reach while concentrating on the sympathetic Noble; his wife, Lilly; and their five children. The doctor faces plenty of obstacles professionally—alerting people about the virus incites the surgeon general, who asserts that influenza is not a concern—as well as at home, where none of his loved ones are immune to the disease. Supporting characters shine, including Col. Victor Vaughn, a good friend to Noble’s late father; Akeema, the nanny treated as family; and Cmdr. Richard Cunard, Noble’s nemesis since Lilly chose Noble instead of him back at Boston University. Cornish loads his story with medical jargon. Most of it can be deciphered via context, like “roentgenograms,” which are X-ray photographs. But the surplus of terminology can be a deterrent: The dramatic punch of caring for a sickly family member is softened by cold clinical descriptions, both in the dialogue between Noble and Lilly and in the repetition and recording of vital signs (pulse, blood pressure, etc.). Regardless, Noble is an appealing, knowledgeable focal point in this fictionalized rendering of the great influenza pandemic.

Affecting characters and dramatic storytelling overcome an occasionally argot-laden plot.

Pub Date: June 7, 2013

ISBN: 978-1482687156

Page Count: 774

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Oct. 31, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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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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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