Flirts dangerously with unreadability.

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THE GIRL WITH THE LEICA

A charismatic martyr of the Spanish Civil War lives on in the memories of three erstwhile pals who have an axe to grind.

In 2018, Janeczek won Italy’s prestigious annual Strega prize, the first woman to have done so in 15 years. Gerda Pohorylle, working pseudonymously as Gerda Taro, was also a first in the 1930s, a female photojournalist on the front lines as leftist troops waged their ultimately unsuccessful battle against the Franco coup. A German Jew who fled Leipzig for Paris, Gerda and her 20-something friends enjoy a brief idyll of cafe society. A typist, she becomes obsessed with photography and heads for Spain with her mentor and lover, André Friedmann, a Hungarian refugee, who takes on the name Robert Capa. (Together they concocted both aliases.) The two separate to cover the rebellion, intending to reunite, but shortly before her 27th birthday, Gerda is killed in a collision with a tank. Janeczek, as an epilogue confirms, hews closely to the known facts about her characters, all real people. The pre–World War II upheaval is very much in the background. Instead we have mostly retrospective musings, half-realized scenes of young love and its attendant angst as recounted by Gerda’s surviving contemporaries, all, like her, German exiles. Dr. Willy Chardack lives in Buffalo, New York, where his routine of the New York Times and pastries is disrupted by a phone call from an old friend that prompts him to ruefully recall his mostly unrequited crush on Gerda. Ruth Cerf, Gerda’s best girlfriend, seems to view Gerda mainly as a rival for male attention. Georg Kuritzkes, a neurologist in Italy, still rankles over being displaced by Capa as Gerda’s love interest. For long stretches, little happens. Gerda is seen only through a glass darkened by resentment. But the chief hurdle for readers of English is the prose. Surprisingly, Goldstein's translation fails to unknot frequent syntactic snarls, in contrast to her limpid renderings of Elena Ferrante’s work. The text is replete with head-scratcher sentences like this: “The ladies of high society were already competing to see who could gorge Hitler, in the face of the workers reduced to poverty by their consorts.”

Flirts dangerously with unreadability.

Pub Date: Oct. 8, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-60945-547-7

Page Count: 297

Publisher: Europa Editions

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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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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