Cerebral entertainment; those with experience perusing dry and dusty tomes may find this worth the slog.



Painstaking—sometimes pain-making—exegesis of an illustrious paranoiac’s imprisonment in London’s Bethlem asylum.

This historical novel by Canadian author Hollingshead (The Healer, 1999) suffers from too much history and not enough story. Protagonist James Tilly Matthews, a London tea merchant on a peace mission to France during the Terror, becomes convinced that he is being persecuted by the Air Loom Gang, Jacobin mind-control agents who infiltrate brains and bodily fluids by manipulating a pneumatic machine. Back in England, “Jamie” is ensnared by double-dealing politicians and consigned to Bethlem Hospital (aka Bedlam). His wife, Margaret, spends years trying to get him released, but can’t even get care packages or letters past the gatekeepers. After many futile administrative proceedings, reported in scrupulous and deadening detail, Margaret takes their son to Jamaica because she fears repercussions from Jamie’s political enemies. Margaret and Jamie alternate narration with John Haslam, the “apothecary” of Bedlam, who has mixed motives for continuing Jamie’s confinement. Despite a nasty bedsore, Jamie adjusts to lunatic life, warming to his keepers, especially crusty, pronunciation-impaired Alavoine. He learns the engraving trade in Bedlam, writes Margaret letters that never get past Alavoine, keeps a stenographic log of asylum abuses and contributes architectural designs for the construction of a new Bethlem. A parliamentary inquiry results in Haslam’s disgrace and dismissal in 1816, but not Jamie’s release. By the end, Jamie is thriving in the 1800s equivalent of a group home, where Mad King George also finds convivial respite. So intractable is Jamie’s Stockholm syndrome that, when Margaret and a contrite Haslam secure his freedom, he balks. Excessive exposition mutes the drama, and readers hoping for lurid scenes of primitive psychiatry will be disappointed.

Cerebral entertainment; those with experience perusing dry and dusty tomes may find this worth the slog.

Pub Date: Sept. 5, 2006

ISBN: 0-312-35474-6

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Dunne/St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2006

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.


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

Did you like this book?

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

Our Verdict

  • Our Verdict
  • GET IT

  • New York Times Bestseller

  • IndieBound Bestseller


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

Did you like this book?