S

A companion piece to Roger's Version, this is Updike updating Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter by having Hester Prynne—here, Sarah Worth—get her two cents in as well. Sarah is a Boston-area matron who, as the book begins (which is all in letters from her, as well as the occasional transcript of a tape), has left her internist husband to travel out to Arizona and join the ashram of the Arhat, a multiple-Mercedes, owning guru absolutely patterned on the Rajneesh of Oregon fame. Sarah is no New Age twit, however, and her letters home, though filled with Sanskrit sublimities (Updike appends a 13-page glossary, assuming—as Updike will—that you'll be as interested in the specific informations of his fiction as he is), are also abrim with practical and very matronly advice to daughter, aged mother, and friends, mostly concerning money. For though the guru (who's later unmasked as Art Steinmetz from Watertown, Mass.) is a master-bilker himself, Sarah's no slouch and lands on her feet even after the veils of maya have been lifted from her eyes. Like Roger's Version and its computer-mainframe, Sarah's novel is one big trope, with a central (not extremely funny) joke (Arhat=Art) and reversal at the end. But it all seems too easy—as though Updike, like Graham Greene, now categorizes himself: a writer of novels (the Rabbit books) but also of more balsa-wood entertainments (as have been the last few books). Wit-soaked and completely au courant as these latter are (even the stock-market crash is prophesied here by Sarah's shrewd head for finance), they dissolve in the mind as soon as they're finished. Possible moral here: a rage for symmetry isn't always an artist's best friend.

Pub Date: Feb. 12, 1988

ISBN: 0394568354

Page Count: 292

Publisher: N/A

Review Posted Online: Oct. 6, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 1988

Did you like this book?

No Comments Yet

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

Did you like this book?

Constructed with delicacy, lyricism, and care, Hertmans’ novel still feels occasionally static.

THE CONVERT

A Christian woman and a Jewish man fall in love in medieval France.

In 1088, a Christian girl of Norman descent falls in love with the son of a rabbi. They run away together, to disastrous effect: Her father sends knights after them, and though they flee to a small southern village where they spend a few happy years, their budding family is soon decimated by a violent wave of First Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem. The girl, whose name becomes Hamoutal when she converts to Judaism, winds up roaming the world. Hertmans’ (War and Turpentine, 2016, etc.) latest novel is based on a true story: The Cairo Genizah, a trove of medieval manuscripts preserved in an Egyptian synagogue, contained an account of Hamoutal’s plight. Hamoutal makes up about half of Hertmans’ novel; the other half is consumed by Hertmans’ own interest in her story. Whenever he can, he follows her journey: from Rouen, where she grew up, to Monieux, where she and David Todros—her Jewish husband—made a brief life for themselves, and all the way to Cairo, and back. “Knowing her life story and its tragic end,” Hertmans writes, “I wish I could warn her of what lies ahead.” The book has a quiet intimacy to it, and in his descriptions of landscape and travel, Hertmans’ prose is frequently lovely. In Narbonne, where David’s family lived, Hertmans describes “the cool of the paving stones in the late morning, the sound of doves’ wings flapping in the immaculate air.” But despite the drama of Hamoutal’s story, there is a static quality to the book, particularly in the sections where Hertmans describes his own travels. It’s an odd contradiction: Hertmans himself moves quickly through the world, but his book doesn’t quite move quickly enough.

Constructed with delicacy, lyricism, and care, Hertmans’ novel still feels occasionally static.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4708-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

Did you like this book?

more