A novel that features an intriguing blend of topics, hampered by awkward execution.

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Shadows of fire

ROMANCE AND THE GREATEST 20TH CENTURY PLOT

Alsina’s debut novel, translated from the Catalan, is an unusual historical saga that touches on the Holocaust, the Spanish Civil War, deconstructionism, kidney transplantation and 1960s sexual liberation.

As the novel opens in 1932, Samuel Klein, a Freudian psychoanalyst in Berlin, and his fiancée, American pianist Ruth, face exile as Jews. Rather than exploring this dramatic pre-Holocaust situation in depth, however, the narrative quickly skips to 1963. Samuel and Ruth’s daughter, Sarah, is a recent University of California, Berkeley, graduate who’s passionate about political activism and feminism. She travels to France to study philosophy under Jacques Derrida. Samuel asks Sarah to meet with Armand Roare, the son of a Catalan doctor who saved his life in 1940; Armand is heading to Paris from Barcelona, to complete a nephrology residency. Over jazz concerts, Sarah and Armand grow closer, and through meetings with Samuel’s wartime colleagues, they uncover stories of his exploits. While a refugee, Samuel spied for the British, reporting on Nazi activity and leading Jews to safety through Spain. Professional ambitions lead Sarah and Armand in different directions, as he performs Barcelona’s first kidney transplant and she takes Derrida’s theories to the United States, but a hurried last section gives the lovers one final, bittersweet rendezvous. The author’s scenes of World War II and the Spanish Civil War provide a vibrant backdrop to its middle flashback section. However, long passages of redundant historical detail seem shoehorned in. The book’s political commentary is also rather shallow (“We Jews want to flee from our cages”; “[w]ars are always cruel for the vast majority of the population in all countries”). Unfortunately, the novel’s characterizations sometimes fail to rise above stereotypes (“He tended to gesticulate when he spoke, as people from the Mediterranean do”), and its explicit sex scenes, though convincing, are sometimes overwritten (“Lustfully, he felt himself immersed in a liberating burst”). Throughout the novel, characters’ backgrounds are often forced into dialogue: “Before going to Paris…we’d like to hear about your life experiences.” Ultimately, even the 1960s framing device seems unnecessary; the best portions of the book recreate wartime action, and they might have been expanded to fill a whole novel.

A novel that features an intriguing blend of topics, hampered by awkward execution.

Pub Date: May 28, 2014

ISBN: 978-1496168948

Page Count: 340

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: July 21, 2014

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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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