Excess and overstatement do crop up, but O’Neill’s warm empathy with his characters, stinging dialogue, and authentic tragic...

AT SWIM, TWO BOYS

The hunger for liberation—political, emotional, and sexual—gnaws at the big heart of this young Irish writer’s engrossing, often very moving debut.

The title, of course, alludes to “Flann O’Brien’s” subversive comic masterpiece At Swim-Two-Birds. But O’Neill’s real influences appear to be James Joyce’s Ulysses and James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, a romantic-epic portrayal of Dublin beset by the Troubles. O’Neill focuses initially on Arthur Mack, a widowed Dublin shopkeeper and Boer War veteran whose stubborn loyalty to Britain conflicts with the swirling energies of incipient rebellion against “foreign” rule that capture his neighbors. If Mack is a dreamy, distracted Leopold Bloom, his 16-year-old son James, a model youth seemingly destined for the priesthood or a teaching career, is a kind of Stephen Dedalus—a passive, well-meaning boy whose life changes under the charismatic influence of his pal Doyler Doyle, a rebel with several causes who draws James into a plan to swim to a nearby island and plant a green flag (symbolizing Ireland’s independence). The rapidly growing love the boys share is interrupted when Doyler is imprisoned for “sedition,” then absorbed in his duties as a Volunteer soldier—and is consummated, with bitter irony, when the Dublin streets become a blood-soaked “nighttown.” O’Neill’s replete characterizations of the aforementioned are deepened by the complex relationships each forms with such other figures as Jim’s stoical, quietly perceptive Aunt Sawney, aristocratic Irish nationalist Eveline MacMurrough, and the latter’s adult nephew Anthony, a sardonic homosexual (formerly convicted of “indecency”) whose imaginary “conversations” with his deceased cellmate explore both Anthony’s reluctant involvement with the Volunteers and his conflicted (and, really, rather contrived) dealings with both Doyler and James.

Excess and overstatement do crop up, but O’Neill’s warm empathy with his characters, stinging dialogue, and authentic tragic vision more than compensate: altogether, his first the best literary news out of Ireland since the maturity of Roddy Doyle.

Pub Date: March 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-7432-2294-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2002

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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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ONE DAY IN THE LIFE OF IVAN DENISOVICH

While a few weeks ago it seemed as if Praeger would have a two month lead over Dutton in their presentation of this Soviet best seller, both the "authorized" edition (Dutton's) and the "unauthorized" (Praeger's) will appear almost simultaneously. There has been considerable advance attention on what appears to be as much of a publishing cause celebre here as the original appearance of the book in Russia. Without entering into the scrimmage, or dismissing it as a plague on both your houses, we will limit ourselves to a few facts. Royalties from the "unauthorized" edition will go to the International Rescue Committee; Dutton with their contracted edition is adhering to copyright conventions. The Praeger edition has two translators and one of them is the translator of Doctor Zhivago Dutton's translator, Ralph Parker, has been stigmatized by Praeger as "an apologist for the Soviet regime". To the untutored eye, the Dutton translation seems a little more literary, the Praeger perhaps closer to the rather primitive style of the original. The book itself is an account of one day in the three thousand six hundred and fifty three days of the sentence to be served by a carpenter, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov. (Solzhenitsyn was a political prisoner.) From the unrelenting cold without, to the conditions within, from the bathhouse to the latrine to the cells where survival for more than two weeks is impossible, this records the hopeless facts of existence as faced by thousands who went on "living like this, with your eyes on the ground". The Dutton edition has an excellent introduction providing an orientation on the political background to its appearance in Russia by Marvin Kalb. All involved in its publication (translators, introducers, etc.) claim for it great "artistic" values which we cannot share, although there is no question of its importance as a political and human document and as significant and tangible evidence of the de-Stalinization program.

Pub Date: June 15, 1963

ISBN: 0451228146

Page Count: 181

Publisher: Praeger

Review Posted Online: Oct. 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1963

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