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by Jill Ciment

Pub Date: Aug. 23rd, 2005
ISBN: 0-375-42325-7
Publisher: Pantheon

Ciment (Teeth of the Dog, 1999, etc.) explores the long, strange life of a New Yorker who moves from Dada art to the art of tattooing.

Young Sara Rabinowitz, freethinking daughter of Orthodox Jewish immigrants to New York’s Lower East Side, finds work as a seamstress in the Ladies Waist Makers’ Union and spends her leisure time as a bohemian in pre-WWI Greenwich Village. Sara has a fiery affair with banker’s-son-turned-artist/revolutionary Philip Ehrenreich, who introduce her to Marxism and calls her “America’s great avant-garde hope.” The Depression, however, is hard on the couple, and Philip accepts a commission from a rich Swiss industrialist to scare up primitive art on the South Sea island of Ta’un’uu. Just before the outbreak of WWII, the Ehrenreichs are dumped on the island, where they look pretty ridiculous dressed in finery and offering cheap trinkets for trade. The natives ignore them until a terrible lightning storm kills several of the tribe; Philip and Sara are culpable, the locals conclude, and must endure retribution by having their faces tattooed. Thus begins Sara’s grisly and eventually liberating transformation, from a being whose scarred face “can no longer convey any sentiments of her own” to a revered elder tattoo artist whose craft brings to the surface the true self. Sara roughs it on the island for 30 years and might have forgotten New York altogether if a crew from Life magazine hadn’t arrived on the beach one day. A curious work that moves back and forth in time and place.

<\b> Somewhat far-fetched and slender, but unique and weirdly imaginative.