While this narrative remains light on action, the author speaks with sophistication and style about the experiences of...

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WE NEVER TOLD

A woman born to an affluent New York family reflects on her upbringing and evolving perceptions of her parents.

Altman’s (In Theda Bara’s Tent, 2010, etc.) latest novel begins with an ominous proclamation: “While cleaning out my mother’s files after she died alone at her secluded house behind a locked gate near the Catskill Mountains, her five cats yowling from fear and hunger, I came upon an alarming letter.” From this document, Sonya Adler learns that many years ago, her mother, Violet, gave up a son for adoption. This discovery causes Sonya to recount her life story, beginning with the moment when she was told her parents would be divorcing. Her mother is the beautiful daughter of a wealthy industrialist; her father is an acclaimed movie producer 20 years her senior. After their separation, the shame of her mother’s unmarried status haunts Sonya’s childhood and shapes her view of relationships into adulthood. Altman’s writing is thoughtful and articulate. Though Sonya’s story includes many formative experiences, such as moving to a new neighborhood, mourning her relatives’ deaths, and falling in love with her eventual husband, the focus repeatedly returns to her mother. Violet is shown to be a complex, at times contradictory person. It is up to readers to decide whether she is petulant or passionate; an irresponsible mother or a woman trying to escape the expectations of a 1950s housewife. Sonya narrates her views on feminist issues and social mores quite earnestly. Many of her anecdotes are compelling and historically revealing, such as her fight to keep her maiden surname when casting a vote. She is admirably cognizant of her own flaws: She admits to being sheltered, changing for people who make her unhappy, and feeling jealous of her sister. But despite its many strengths, the plot is often lacking in conflict. Sonya describes her personal dramas quietly and solemnly, and few are sustained for very long. As a result, the flavor of the story is slightly bland.

While this narrative remains light on action, the author speaks with sophistication and style about the experiences of American women in the recent past.

Pub Date: June 11, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63152-543-8

Page Count: 305

Publisher: She Writes Press

Review Posted Online: March 19, 2019

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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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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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