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THE WAITING ROOM

An ambitious debut is bogged down in banalities and too-cute narrative tricks.

The daughter of Holocaust survivors contends with present-day violence in Israel and Palestine.

When Dina wakes up one morning to radio warnings of a possible terrorist attack, she’s both worried and surprised: normally Haifa, her home, doesn’t see much violence. Dina is a doctor as well as the mother of a young boy, with a baby on the way. She’s afraid to let her son go off to school, but what else can she do? She kisses her son and husband goodbye and heads off to work. Kaminsky (Stitching Things Together, 2012, etc.) is also, like Dina, a doctor. She’s an evocative storyteller, and she’s sensitive to the intersections between physical and emotional pain and the way that memory intrudes upon daily reality. But Kaminsky may have bitten off more than she can chew in her first novel. This isn’t just a story about contemporary violence in Israel and Palestine. Dina is the daughter of Holocaust survivors. After enduring life in Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, her mother and father fled to Australia, where they raised their daughter. Reared on her mother’s stories of horror and war, Dina can’t seem to escape violence, no matter how far she flees. She spends much of the novel, which takes place over the course of a day, bickering with the ghost of her mother. As she drives to work or to her son’s school or to the shoemaker to fix a broken heel, her mother’s ghost tries to hold court. “Did I tell you how we slept in the same wooden bunk all those nights in Bergen-Belsen?” she will say. “You need to know these things, Dina.” But Dina is impatient and busy. “Not now, mother. I have to get back to work,” she says. “We can talk about this later.” Eventually, as the violence in her mother’s past begins to converge with the violence in Haifa, Dina is forced to contend with her mother. But their bickering seems more precious than moving, and it becomes tiresome. Then, Kaminsky’s prose is clotted with mundane details that detract from the heart of the novel. These asides—about putting on makeup, purchasing apples, etc.—are not only distracting, but they’re also boring, and they slow down the narrative. Dina’s story might have benefited from a little less schtick and a little more honest reckoning.

An ambitious debut is bogged down in banalities and too-cute narrative tricks.

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-249047-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Aug. 30, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2016

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

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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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 16, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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HOUSE OF LEAVES

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and...

An amazingly intricate and ambitious first novel - ten years in the making - that puts an engrossing new spin on the traditional haunted-house tale.

Texts within texts, preceded by intriguing introductory material and followed by 150 pages of appendices and related "documents" and photographs, tell the story of a mysterious old house in a Virginia suburb inhabited by esteemed photographer-filmmaker Will Navidson, his companion Karen Green (an ex-fashion model), and their young children Daisy and Chad.  The record of their experiences therein is preserved in Will's film The Davidson Record - which is the subject of an unpublished manuscript left behind by a (possibly insane) old man, Frank Zampano - which falls into the possession of Johnny Truant, a drifter who has survived an abusive childhood and the perverse possessiveness of his mad mother (who is institutionalized).  As Johnny reads Zampano's manuscript, he adds his own (autobiographical) annotations to the scholarly ones that already adorn and clutter the text (a trick perhaps influenced by David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest) - and begins experiencing panic attacks and episodes of disorientation that echo with ominous precision the content of Davidson's film (their house's interior proves, "impossibly," to be larger than its exterior; previously unnoticed doors and corridors extend inward inexplicably, and swallow up or traumatize all who dare to "explore" their recesses).  Danielewski skillfully manipulates the reader's expectations and fears, employing ingeniously skewed typography, and throwing out hints that the house's apparent malevolence may be related to the history of the Jamestown colony, or to Davidson's Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a dying Vietnamese child stalked by a waiting vulture.  Or, as "some critics [have suggested,] the house's mutations reflect the psychology of anyone who enters it."

The story's very ambiguity steadily feeds its mysteriousness and power, and Danielewski's mastery of postmodernist and cinema-derived rhetoric up the ante continuously, and stunningly.  One of the most impressive excursions into the supernatural in many a year.

Pub Date: March 6, 2000

ISBN: 0-375-70376-4

Page Count: 704

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2000

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