Philosophical and earthy, tragic and funny, honest, raw, superb: Sales makes Hemingway seem thin, even anemic, in...

UNCERTAIN GLORY

Catalan writer Sales tells a multilayered story of loves, faith, friendships, and ideals tested by the Spanish Civil War in this novel banned by Franco's censors, then published in 1956 after the author's return from exile.

Former school friends Lt. Lluís Ruscalleda and Juli Soleràs are reunited in a republican brigade on the Aragon front, fighting "for hygiene and culture" against the fascist forces. In a sacked monastery, Lluís salvages books and searches for a missing certificate for the mysterious lady of the castle. When tins of condensed milk go missing, Soleràs brags of stealing "from soldiers on the front line to give to whores in the rearguard." Sales draws on his own experience in a similar brigade, fighting for Catalan independence; he brings a new perspective to the civil war and writes with authority about "half-burnt bread" and "the sad, obscene songs the recruits sang." But it is the compelling depth of the varied, complex, human characters that shows his true mastery. Lluís wonders, "Which part of us must remain unchangeable? Are we so sure it's more valuable than the part that leaves us at every moment? Or are we entirely ghostlike, clouds whose single hope is to live a moment of glory, one solitary moment, and then vanish?" In Barcelona, Trini Milmany, a geologist and mother of Lluís' son, considers "what the success of these winners represents in terms of geology—less perhaps than that of a mosquito from the Carboniferous Age." The glorious possibility of a Catalan republic devolves into what one disillusioned anarchist calls this "sinister revolutionary carnival," adding, "Our ideals were so beautiful...when nobody had tried to put them into practice!" Amid the horror, the thirst for glory persists: "We have acted like men and we've acted like wild beasts...how can anyone now ever become a notary?" There are moments of transcendent beauty: a castle imagined as "a frigate of stone, people and animals all on board, all sailing together in this huge ship that seems still but is moving across the ocean of time"; a character walking through a town's snow-covered ruins as if "wading through the remnants of a shipwreck." And of humor: "The worst side to wars is the fact they're turned into novels," Soleràs complains. "Foreigners will turn this huge mess into stirring stories of bullfighters and gypsies."

Philosophical and earthy, tragic and funny, honest, raw, superb: Sales makes Hemingway seem thin, even anemic, in comparison. This book is a rich and highly recommended feast.

Pub Date: Oct. 10, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-68137-180-1

Page Count: 464

Publisher: New York Review Books

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2017

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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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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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An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

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THE WATER DANCER

The celebrated author of Between the World and Me (2015) and We Were Eight Years in Power (2017) merges magic, adventure, and antebellum intrigue in his first novel.

In pre–Civil War Virginia, people who are white, whatever their degree of refinement, are considered “the Quality” while those who are black, whatever their degree of dignity, are regarded as “the Tasked.” Whether such euphemisms for slavery actually existed in the 19th century, they are evocatively deployed in this account of the Underground Railroad and one of its conductors: Hiram Walker, one of the Tasked who’s barely out of his teens when he’s recruited to help guide escapees from bondage in the South to freedom in the North. “Conduction” has more than one meaning for Hiram. It's also the name for a mysterious force that transports certain gifted individuals from one place to another by way of a blue light that lifts and carries them along or across bodies of water. Hiram knows he has this gift after it saves him from drowning in a carriage mishap that kills his master’s oafish son (who’s Hiram’s biological brother). Whatever the source of this power, it galvanizes Hiram to leave behind not only his chains, but also the two Tasked people he loves most: Thena, a truculent older woman who practically raised him as a surrogate mother, and Sophia, a vivacious young friend from childhood whose attempt to accompany Hiram on his escape is thwarted practically at the start when they’re caught and jailed by slave catchers. Hiram directly confronts the most pernicious abuses of slavery before he is once again conducted away from danger and into sanctuary with the Underground, whose members convey him to the freer, if funkier environs of Philadelphia, where he continues to test his power and prepare to return to Virginia to emancipate the women he left behind—and to confront the mysteries of his past. Coates’ imaginative spin on the Underground Railroad’s history is as audacious as Colson Whitehead’s, if less intensely realized. Coates’ narrative flourishes and magic-powered protagonist are reminiscent of his work on Marvel’s Black Panther superhero comic book, but even his most melodramatic effects are deepened by historical facts and contemporary urgency.

An almost-but-not-quite-great slavery novel.

Pub Date: Sept. 24, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-399-59059-7

Page Count: 432

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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