A complex, compassionate novel about Germans coming to terms with their actions during WWII.

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A DANCE IN THE ASHES

A Nazi official, his wife, and a traveling performer struggle to rebuild their lives in the immediate aftermath of World War II in Kosack and Overmann’s historical novel.

With “the chaos of the Nazis” behind him, former Gestapo higher-up Franz Tegge must now “survive the peace.” After he turns himself over to the Americans, he’s plucked from a POW camp by the U.S. Army’s secret service, which enlists him to track down fellow Nazis trying to evade capture by leaving Berlin. As Franz keeps tabs on his former colleagues, his wife, Mathilde, performs forced labor with other Nazi wives, clearing away rubble for long hours, clambering over “fragments of cobblestones left by burned-out tanks, eviscerated cars, tipped over advertisement pillars.” She brings her measly rations home to her extended family, including her own two children; her sister, a pious pastor’s wife; and her sister’s two kids. On a dare, two of the youngsters climb a bombed-out apartment building, and tightrope walker Camillo Baumgartner saves Mathilde’s eldest, Karla, from falling to her death. His act of generosity sparks a slow-burning flirtation between him and Mathilde, as well as plenty of raised eyebrows from neighborhood gossips, who disapprove of Germans socializing with “Gypsies.” Keja, a performer in Camillo’s troupe, likewise objects to the budding romance; however, she soon finds out that Camillo’s involvement with the Tegge clan may have less to do with his love for Mathilde than his past with Franz. As they use elements of classic melodrama, the authors sometimes let their prose overheat: “Irrational, powerful fear tore at Mathilde’s stomach as her fear became a fear of fear itself.” For the most part, though, the duo’s English-language debut finds emotional resonance in even its smallest details, such as a 2-year-old fast asleep despite the thunder of bombs outside his door or a starving teenager relishing her first piece of spearmint gum. Although the Franz and Camillo chapters push the narrative forward, Mathilde is the novel’s emotional core—a multifaceted woman who’s all too aware that her “dread over what Franz had done” casts a shadow over her choices.

A complex, compassionate novel about Germans coming to terms with their actions during WWII.

Pub Date: Sept. 15, 2014

ISBN: 978-1937506803

Page Count: 390

Publisher: Rockstar Publishing House

Review Posted Online: March 30, 2015

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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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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