A complex, politically daring story, much of which will be unfamiliar to Western readers—and that demands to be read for...

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THE ZENITH

Scenes from the last months in the life of Ho Chi Minh, as imagined by Vietnamese novelist Huong (Paradise of the Blind, 1993, etc.).

In the mountain fastness of northern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh is cold—and who would have thought that the jungly mountains of that country could possibly be “frigid and foggy”? He is there, and not in Hanoi, because a very subtle coup d’état has taken place even as Ho’s People’s Republic is struggling in its bloody war against the Americans (“Did you not see what happened when Thang’s soldiers ran into the minefield?” asks one combat veteran of another. “Eighteen guys altogether and yet it took the vultures only two days to clean them out.”) Much of Huong’s story centers on Ho, who, though embittered at the turn of events, is also quietly grateful for the chance to read, meditate and get away from it all; other episodes shift to members of Ho’s family, the soldiers surrounding him, their families and, by extension, just about everyone who ever called Ho Chi Minh “the great father of the land.” Huong’s tone is somber, even exalted, her language formal without being stilted or stiff, her approach sometimes didactic; only rarely are there flashes of that strange language called Translationese, as, for example, this passage: “If he dared speak so boldly, what would keep him from insulting her to her face in a rude and cruel manner when he learned that she had gone all the way to Khoai Hamlet?” Huong’s lyrical narrative, developed at a deliberate pace, is sometimes reminiscent of Hermann Broch’s The Death of Virgil, that classic 1945 novel that imagined, from the ruins of Europe, the early years of the Roman Empire from the point of view of someone not quite at the center of power who stands in the presence of those who control it absolutely. On that note, it also has undertones of Anatoly Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat (1987), whose story switched back and forth from the oppressed man in the Moscow street to the Boss, Josef Stalin, himself. And that’s altogether fitting, for Ho was said to be the most Stalinist of all of Stalin’s heirs, even if Huong manages to find glimmers of humanity within him. 

A complex, politically daring story, much of which will be unfamiliar to Western readers—and that demands to be read for that very reason.

Pub Date: Aug. 16, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-670-02375-2

Page Count: 528

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 22, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2012

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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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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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