A sudden string of calamities prompts a righteous woman to question her faith in Hartley’s debut novel.

Jemimah Barraclough—named after the daughter of the biblically afflicted Job—leads a charmed life. Cozily married to railroad technician Bob with four lovable kids, Jemimah counts among her blessings a fine house in the glowing English village of Moorthwaite and a comfortable nest-egg from a lucky lottery ticket. She deserves it, too; she’s a leader in her church, generous to charities and always ready to console a troubled neighbor. But Sophie, a cynical town gossip with horn-shaped wisps of cigarette smoke crowning her head, thinks Jemimah’s holiness would crumble along with her happiness if she were to suffer misfortune. And Jemimah will suffer—but not for a good long while. The first half of Hartley’s sprawling novel is a slow-paced, naturalistic depiction of the Barracloughs’ bliss with hardly a cloud on the horizon. There are well-observed scenes of genial domestic chaos, comically bickering kids and family outings in the countryside, with the exasperated, slightly uptight Jemimah always striving to enforce rules of morality and deportment. A roomy subplot about one of Bob’s construction projects immerses readers in railroad office politics, endless jocular banter among electricians and the technicalities of rewiring signal stations. This is engaging enough material, especially if you like trains, and Harley stocks it with vivid, sympathetic characters but the reader sometimes wonders where the narrative is heading. Then, an avalanche of disasters sweeps down. Hartley explores Jemimah’s anguish with sensitivity as she struggles to keep a stiff upper lip, pull her family together amid shocking traumas and reach out to others as tragedy closes in. As in the Old Testament, God’s response to rattled prayers is not entirely satisfying and entails a string of contrivances that strain credulity. Still, as characters wrestle with trials great and small, Hartley’s delicate, perceptive rendering of their sorrow and confusion makes for an absorbing read. A moving, if meandering, fable of good people who weather bad things.                                


Pub Date: Feb. 21, 2012

ISBN: 978-1467884709

Page Count: 508

Publisher: AuthorHouse

Review Posted Online: April 12, 2012

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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.


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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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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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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