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1914

A readable fictional introduction to the Great War for those who know nothing about it but inessential for anyone who’s read...

Four young Frenchmen confront the grim reality of trench warfare in a spare, elliptical novel from Goncourt-winner Echenoz (Lightning, 2011, etc.).

We see just what they are leaving behind in the idyllic scene that opens the book, as Anthime bicycles in the hills of the Vendée region, pausing to view a panorama of pastures and villages under the August sun. Then the church bells begin ringing, and he returns to the town square to learn that war has been declared. “It won’t last longer than two weeks,” says his intimidating brother Charles, but of course, readers know better. We follow Anthime and his pals Padioleau, Bossis and Arcenel to the barracks (where arrogant Charles commandeers the best-fitting uniform) and on parade past cheering citizens. They include Blanche, whose family runs the factory where Anthime and Charles work; both brothers are in love with her, but she prefers Charles. It’s a nasty twist of fate that Blanche’s successful attempt to get Charles transferred away from danger in the infantry results in his death in a plane crash, leaving her to bear his child alone and unmarried in January. Bogged down in the trench line that “had suddenly congealed…from Switzerland to the North Sea,” Anthime is congratulated by his comrades on losing his arm to a piece of shrapnel; it’s a “good wound” that will extricate him from the senseless bloodshed Echenoz matter-of-factly describes. His companions fare less well: Bossis is gruesomely killed, Arcenel shot for desertion and Padioleau is blinded by gas. As the author himself remarks, “[a]ll this has been described a thousand times,” and Echenoz doesn’t offer anything new in the way of character or insight to justify his retelling, though his restrained, elegant prose (nicely translated by Coverdale) remains a pleasure.

A readable fictional introduction to the Great War for those who know nothing about it but inessential for anyone who’s read Ernest Hemingway or John Roderigo Dos Passos.

Pub Date: Jan. 7, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-59558-911-8

Page Count: 128

Publisher: The New Press

Review Posted Online: Sept. 17, 2013

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 1, 2013

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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