Improbable, sure, but that’s not a bad thing in a historical romance this vivid and entertaining.

ISLE OF PASSION

The Colombian author’s previously untranslated 1999 debut novel is arguably her best: a ripping yarn that recreates an obscure historical incident.

In 1908, half-French Mexican Army officer Ramón Arnaud, who had been disciplined and cashiered for insubordination and cowardice, was sent to act as lieutenant governor on remote Clipperton Island. That outpost—named for a notorious English pirate who had sheltered there (and previously dubbed “Isle of Passion” by the celebrated voyager Magellan)—though ostensibly vulnerable to attack by France, is only a barren wasteland: a volcanic atoll virtually bereft of tillable soil, ringed by perilous underwater coral reefs and far from civilization, in the northern Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s western coast. Restrepo’s increasingly engaging narrative juxtaposes the Arnaud party’s ordeal (late-arriving supply ships, a catastrophic hurricane, a plague of scurvy that decimates the island’s small populace, the consequences of failed escape attempts) with a nameless journalist’s efforts, two centuries later, to interview the Clipperton adventurers’ surviving relatives, and thus piece together a separate history virtually ignorant of (though profoundly affected by) the Mexican Revolution, World Wars and the inevitable seepage of fact into legend. The story drags initially, as the narrative structure painstakingly reveals itself. But Restrepo energizes it with persuasive characterizations of conflicted, intermittently megalomaniacal Ramón, his courageous wife Alicia (who ultimately becomes the islander’s savior) and two splendidly imagined antagonists: German hydraulics engineer Gustav Schultz (engaged by a company that processes the Clipperton birds’ rich guano deposits), and the island’s own Caliban, lighthouse keeper Victoriano Alvarez, who rises eerily from the dead, tests the resourceful Alicia’s wits and will and precipitates a climactic battle that threatens her comrades’ last hope of rescue and survival.

Improbable, sure, but that’s not a bad thing in a historical romance this vivid and entertaining.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-06-008898-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2005

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Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

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CIRCE

A retelling of ancient Greek lore gives exhilarating voice to a witch.

“Monsters are a boon for gods. Imagine all the prayers.” So says Circe, a sly, petulant, and finally commanding voice that narrates the entirety of Miller’s dazzling second novel. The writer returns to Homer, the wellspring that led her to an Orange Prize for The Song of Achilles (2012). This time, she dips into The Odyssey for the legend of Circe, a nymph who turns Odysseus’ crew of men into pigs. The novel, with its distinctive feminist tang, starts with the sentence: “When I was born, the name for what I was did not exist.” Readers will relish following the puzzle of this unpromising daughter of the sun god Helios and his wife, Perse, who had negligible use for their child. It takes banishment to the island Aeaea for Circe to sense her calling as a sorceress: “I will not be like a bird bred in a cage, I thought, too dull to fly even when the door stands open. I stepped into those woods and my life began.” This lonely, scorned figure learns herbs and potions, surrounds herself with lions, and, in a heart-stopping chapter, outwits the monster Scylla to propel Daedalus and his boat to safety. She makes lovers of Hermes and then two mortal men. She midwifes the birth of the Minotaur on Crete and performs her own C-section. And as she grows in power, she muses that “not even Odysseus could talk his way past [her] witchcraft. He had talked his way past the witch instead.” Circe’s fascination with mortals becomes the book’s marrow and delivers its thrilling ending. All the while, the supernatural sits intriguingly alongside “the tonic of ordinary things.” A few passages coil toward melodrama, and one inelegant line after a rape seems jarringly modern, but the spell holds fast. Expect Miller’s readership to mushroom like one of Circe’s spells.

Miller makes Homer pertinent to women facing 21st-century monsters.

Pub Date: April 10, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-316-55634-7

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: Jan. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2018

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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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