Ambitious in scope, at times poetic with strong imagery, this is a literary work that ultimately resonates with hope.

GIRL UNWRAPPED

A complex coming-of-age story about an only child of Holocaust survivors whose keen sense of outsiderness and otherness is intensified by her struggle with coming out as a lesbian.

This debut novel is set largely in Montreal between 1959 and 1970. Goliger (Song of Ascent, 2003) creatively structures the narrative into five parts to correspond with important and often painful passages in Toni Goldblatt's life. "The Mountain" introduces Toni at eight years old, a tomboy who regards dresses as "a frilly prison," loves that "their street hugs the wild side of Mount Royal" and can't possibly live up to "be the miracle child her mother insists God delivered at Toni's birth." Conflicts abound. Her mother Lisa, originally from the Bohemian town of Karlsbad, sews alterations at Shmelzer's and fiercely wants a better, bigger life for her family. The author effectively weaves strands of residual Holocaust fears with Toni's own confusing secrets regarding her emerging sexuality. At 15, she's sent to Camp Tikvah, a Jewish camp in the Laurentians, where she feels like "loose debris," even more of an outcast than at school, and falls in love with the "sassy" (and straight) song instructor Janet. Swept up by the excitement of the Six Day War, Toni, now 18, embarks for Jerusalem; she returns to Montreal when her beloved book-rescuing father dies. The pace picks up when Toni discovers Loulou's, an under-the-radar lesbian bar where she continues to question "Who am I? Neither male nor female, neither fish nor fowl"—and moves even faster in part five when Toni does indeed become a "girl unwrapped," with all its complications and meanings. The personal is emphasized over the political, which is in fact dealt with somewhat superficially, but that is most likely the author's intent.

Ambitious in scope, at times poetic with strong imagery, this is a literary work that ultimately resonates with hope.

Pub Date: May 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-1-55152-375-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Arsenal Pulp Press

Review Posted Online: April 18, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1, 2011

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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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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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