Fictional drama blends seamlessly, if painfully, with factual history in this historical fiction of the highest order.

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THE BETRAYAL

In her sequel to The Siege (2002, etc.), Dunmore returns to Leningrad in 1952, compressing the anxiety and terror of the postwar Stalinist years into the intimate details of one family’s crisis.

A sense of doom takes over from the first page when pediatrician Andrei is approached by a nervously sweating colleague who twists his arm to consult on a case they both know will bring trouble. Volkov, the head of State Security, has brought in his 10-year-old son Gorya with a badly swollen leg. X-rays show a cancerous tumor; Gorya’s leg must be amputated. Andrei, whose specialty is arthritis, has no expertise in oncology, but Volkov demands he take charge of the case because Gorya likes him. Anti-Semitic Volkov even agrees to Andrei’s recommendation of a Jewish surgeon. Although the amputation is successful and Gorya appears on the road to recovery, the surgeon immediately transfers out of Leningrad and recommends Andrei do the same to lower his visibility. Instead, he and his wife Anna, who fell in love during the Nazi’s siege on the city, take a fatalistic approach, barely altering their routine. Since the wartime death of Anna’s father, they have concentrated on raising Anna’s little brother Kolya, now 16, like their own son in the relatively comfortable apartment they inherited from Anna’s father, a politically unpublishable writer. In this relentlessly dark novel, Anna’s petty battle with a neighbor who complains about Kolya’s piano playing passes for comic relief. When one of the characters is arrested, history goes on to create an ironic deus ex machina par none—the arrest occurs in 1952; Stalin dies in 1953 and the iron glove relaxes.

Fictional drama blends seamlessly, if painfully, with factual history in this historical fiction of the highest order.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-8021-7088-0

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Black Cat/Grove

Review Posted Online: July 20, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2011

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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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