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THE KNOWN WORLD

This will mean a great deal to a great many people. It should be a major prize contender, and it won’t be forgotten.

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Slave-owning by free blacks in antebellum America is the astonishingly rich subject of this impressively researched, challenging novel debut by Faulkner Award–winning Jones (stories: Lost in the City, 1992).

Set mostly in the period 1830–50, many nested and interrelated stories revolve around the death of black Virginia farmer and slaveholder Henry Townsend, himself a former slave who had purchased his own freedom, as was—and did—his father Augustus, a gifted woodcarver. Jones’s flexible narrative moves from the travail of Augustus and his wife Mildred through Henry’s conflicted life as both servant and master, to survey as well the lives of Armstrong slaves, from their early years on to many decades after Henry’s passing. The first hundred pages are daunting, as the reader struggles to sort out initially quickly glimpsed characters and absorb Jones’s handling of historical background information (which virtually never feels obtrusive or oppressive, thanks to his eloquent prose and palpable high seriousness). The story steadily gathers overpowering momentum, as we learn more about such vibrant figures as Henry’s introspective spouse Caldonia, his wily overseer Moses, the long-suffering mutilated slave Elias and his crippled wife Celeste, the brutal “patrollers” charged with hunting down runaways (one of whom, duplicitous Harvey Travis, is a villain for the ages), and county sheriff John Skiffington, a decent man who nevertheless cannot shrug off “responsibilities” with which his culture has provisioned, and burdened, him. The particulars and consequences of the “right” of humans to own other humans are dramatized with unprecedented ingenuity and intensity, in a harrowing tale that scarcely ever raises its voice—even during a prolonged climax when two searches produce bitter results and presage the vanishing of a “known world” unable to isolate itself from the shaping power of time and change.

This will mean a great deal to a great many people. It should be a major prize contender, and it won’t be forgotten.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-06-055754-0

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Amistad/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2003

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WE WERE THE LUCKY ONES

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Hunter’s debut novel tracks the experiences of her family members during the Holocaust.

Sol and Nechuma Kurc, wealthy, cultured Jews in Radom, Poland, are successful shop owners; they and their grown children live a comfortable lifestyle. But that lifestyle is no protection against the onslaught of the Holocaust, which eventually scatters the members of the Kurc family among several continents. Genek, the oldest son, is exiled with his wife to a Siberian gulag. Halina, youngest of all the children, works to protect her family alongside her resistance-fighter husband. Addy, middle child, a composer and engineer before the war breaks out, leaves Europe on one of the last passenger ships, ending up thousands of miles away. Then, too, there are Mila and Felicia, Jakob and Bella, each with their own share of struggles—pain endured, horrors witnessed. Hunter conducted extensive research after learning that her grandfather (Addy in the book) survived the Holocaust. The research shows: her novel is thorough and precise in its details. It’s less precise in its language, however, which frequently relies on cliché. “You’ll get only one shot at this,” Halina thinks, enacting a plan to save her husband. “Don’t botch it.” Later, Genek, confronting a routine bit of paperwork, must decide whether or not to hide his Jewishness. “That form is a deal breaker,” he tells himself. “It’s life and death.” And: “They are low, it seems, on good fortune. And something tells him they’ll need it.” Worse than these stale phrases, though, are the moments when Hunter’s writing is entirely inadequate for the subject matter at hand. Genek, describing the gulag, calls the nearest town “a total shitscape.” This is a low point for Hunter’s writing; elsewhere in the novel, it’s stronger. Still, the characters remain flat and unknowable, while the novel itself is predictable. At this point, more than half a century’s worth of fiction and film has been inspired by the Holocaust—a weighty and imposing tradition. Hunter, it seems, hasn’t been able to break free from her dependence on it.

Too beholden to sentimentality and cliché, this novel fails to establish a uniquely realized perspective.

Pub Date: Feb. 14, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-399-56308-9

Page Count: 416

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: Nov. 21, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2016

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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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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 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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