In between the more hysterical moments, Brooks writes quite beautifully. But Year of Wonders was a mistake.

YEAR OF WONDERS

Painstaking re-creation of 17th-century England, swallowed by over-the-top melodramatics: a wildly uneven first novel by an Australian-born journalist.

The Year of the title is 1665: the date of the devastating bubonic epidemic chronicled in Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. Brooks’s tale, framed by reveries set a year and a half after the plague burns itself out (in “Leaf-Fall, 1666”), is narrated by Anna Frith, an earnest and highly intelligent young widow who buries her own multiple bereavements (first her gentle husband, later their two small sons) in work, aiding her (unnamed) village rector’s wife in treating the sick with medicinal herbs and traditional cures. Brooks is at her best in lyrical, precise descriptions of country landscapes and village customs, and makes something very appealing and (initially) quite credible out of Anna’s wary hunger for learning and innate charitable kindness. But the novel goes awry when the panic of contagion isolates her village from neighboring hamlets, a forthright young woman and her distracted aunt are accused of witchcraft and hunted down, and Anna’s drunken, violent father, who profits as a gravedigger for hire, resorts to providing corpses that will require his services. The excesses continue, as Anna’s stepmother, crazed with grief, seeks vengeance against rector Michael Mompellion and his saintly wife (and Anna’s mentor and soulmate) Elinor, and rise to a feverish pitch when Anna, having found a new innocent victim to nurture and raise, offends the powerful Bradford family and must flee to safety—ending up (in a borderline-risible Epilogue) in North Africa in the sanctuary of a kindly “Bey’s” harem. It’s all more than a bit much: Thomas Hardy crossed with Erskine Caldwell, with more than a whiff of Jane Eyre in Anna’s conflicted devotion to the brooding, Mr. Rochester–like Mompellion.

In between the more hysterical moments, Brooks writes quite beautifully. But Year of Wonders was a mistake.

Pub Date: Aug. 6, 2001

ISBN: 0-670-91021-X

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2001

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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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Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

THE WINTER GUEST

An 18-year-old Polish girl falls in love, swoons over a first kiss, dreams of marriage—and, oh yes, we are in the middle of the Holocaust.

Jenoff (The Ambassador’s Daughter, 2013, etc.) weaves a tale of fevered teenage love in a time of horrors in the early 1940s, as the Nazis invade Poland and herd Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. A prologue set in 2013, narrated by a resident of the Westchester Senior Center, provides an intriguing setup. A woman and a policeman visit the resident and ask if she came from a small Polish village. Their purpose is unclear until they mention bones recently found there: “And we think you might know something about them.” The book proceeds in the third person, told from the points of view mostly of teenage Helena, who comes upon an injured young Jewish-American soldier, and sometimes of her twin, Ruth, who is not as adventurous as Helena but is very competitive with her. Their father is dead, their mother is dying in a hospital, and they are raising their three younger siblings amid danger and hardship. The romance between Helena and Sam, the soldier, is often conveyed in overheated language that doesn’t sit well with the era’s tragic events: “There had been an intensity to his embrace that said he was barely able to contain himself, that he also wanted more.” Jenoff, clearly on the side of tolerance, slips in a simplified historical framework for the uninformed. But she also feeds stereotypes, having Helena note that Sam has “a slight arch to his nose” and a dark complexion that “would make him suspect as a Jew immediately.” Clichés also pop up during the increasingly complex plot: “But even if they stood in place, the world around them would not.”

Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1596-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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