An unusually structured, thoroughly researched and deeply felt work that creates an intimate portrait of two women and the...

THIS ISN'T EASY FOR ME

In Berengaut’s (The Estate of Wormwood and Honey, 2012) second novel, two women discuss love, physics, infidelity, polyamory, mathematics, the Holocaust and the importance of family.

Imagine if My Dinner with Andre, with its emphasis on dialogue and the nuanced analysis of past adventure and philosophy, took place between two contemporary, highly accomplished women having lunch. Berengaut has accomplished something remarkable: a novel composed entirely of dialogue, with no chapter breaks, that is riveting from beginning to end. Sabine Stern is an academic who is regularly invited to speak at top-tier universities, while Renata Rubinstein is a world-famous, wealthy intellectual married to a genius mathematician named Mark. Ostensibly, Sabine has arranged to meet Renata about a “personal matter,” but the conversation takes on incredible scope and depth, traversing the two women’s vast experience and knowledge, including their ancestors’ time in Nazi Germany and concepts of poetry and sexual fidelity. The narrative begins to take shape when Sabine mentions that she received an email out of the blue from Renata’s husband about a mathematical concept related to her work. Gradually, the women discover that their connection is about more than a simple chance email; the interweaving of their backgrounds, philosophies and approaches toward living has the potential to dramatically alter each of their destinies. The book’s strength is simultaneously its weakness. As Sabine and Renata discuss at one point: “It’s hard to believe that, once upon the time, people used to read philosophy for pleasure.” “It is a rather strange experience, reading those books. You understand the words, you sort of think that you understand the sentences, but the sense of paragraphs—not to say anything about whole chapters—is completely elusive.” Indeed, the engrossing narrative, which twists and turns through a variety of historical anecdotes and personal experiences, has no natural breaks, almost forcing readers to finish it in one sitting. However, the experience is a richly rewarding one, and the surprise ending is poignant without being sentimental. These mature, thoughtful women are unlike almost any others in popular contemporary literature, and their conversation—long, gorgeous, encompassing—is one of the most memorable in literature of the last 10 years.

An unusually structured, thoroughly researched and deeply felt work that creates an intimate portrait of two women and the decades they have thoughtfully inhabited.

Pub Date: Aug. 27, 2014

ISBN: 978-1500856175

Page Count: 256

Publisher: CreateSpace

Review Posted Online: Oct. 21, 2014

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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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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

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