Although this novel’s reach exceeds its grasp, it is a necessary book.

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THE ISLAND OF SEA WOMEN

On an island off the South Korean coast, an ancient guild of women divers reckons with the depredations of modernity from 1938 to 2008 in See's (The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, 2017, etc.) latest novel.

The women divers of Jeju Island, known as haenyeo, don't display the usual female subservience. Empowered by the income they derive from their diving, harvesting seafood to consume and sell, haenyeo are heads of households; their husbands mind the children and do menial chores. Young-sook, See’s first-person narrator and protagonist, tells of her family and her ill-fated friendship with Mi-ja, who, rescued from neglectful relatives by Sun-sil, Young-sook’s mother, is initiated into the diving collective headed by Sun-sil. The girls grow up together, dive together, and go on lucrative assignments in the freezing waters near Vladivostok, Russia. They are also married off together, Mi-ja to Sang-mun, who, as World War II progresses, is enriched by collaborating with the Japanese, and Young-sook to Jun-bu, a neighbor and childhood playmate. The novel’s first half is anecdotal and a little tedious as the minutiae of the haenyeo craft are explored: free diving, pre-wetsuit diving garb, and sumbisori, the art of held breath. As two tragedies prove, the most prized catches are the riskiest: octopus and abalone. See did extensive research with primary sources to detail not only the haenyeo traditions, but the mass murders on Jeju beginning in 1948, which were covered up for decades by the South Korean government. As Jeju villages are decimated, Young-sook loses half her family and also, due to a terrible betrayal, her friendship with Mi-ja. The tangled web of politics and tyranny, not to mention the inaction of U.N. and American occupiers leading up to the massacres, deserves its own work, perhaps nonfiction. In the context of such horrors, the novel’s main source of suspense, whether Young-sook can forgive Mi-ja, seems beside the point.

Although this novel’s reach exceeds its grasp, it is a necessary book.

Pub Date: March 19, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5485-0

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

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Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s...

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THE NICKEL BOYS

The acclaimed author of The Underground Railroad (2016) follows up with a leaner, meaner saga of Deep South captivity set in the mid-20th century and fraught with horrors more chilling for being based on true-life atrocities.

Elwood Curtis is a law-abiding, teenage paragon of rectitude, an avid reader of encyclopedias and after-school worker diligently overcoming hardships that come from being abandoned by his parents and growing up black and poor in segregated Tallahassee, Florida. It’s the early 1960s, and Elwood can feel changes coming every time he listens to an LP of his hero Martin Luther King Jr. sermonizing about breaking down racial barriers. But while hitchhiking to his first day of classes at a nearby black college, Elwood accepts a ride in what turns out to be a stolen car and is sentenced to the Nickel Academy, a juvenile reformatory that looks somewhat like the campus he’d almost attended but turns out to be a monstrously racist institution whose students, white and black alike, are brutally beaten, sexually abused, and used by the school’s two-faced officials to steal food and supplies. At first, Elwood thinks he can work his way past the arbitrary punishments and sadistic treatment (“I am stuck here, but I’ll make the best of it…and I’ll make it brief”). He befriends another black inmate, a street-wise kid he knows only as Turner, who has a different take on withstanding Nickel: “The key to in here is the same as surviving out there—you got to see how people act, and then you got to figure out how to get around them like an obstacle course.” And if you defy them, Turner warns, you’ll get taken “out back” and are never seen or heard from again. Both Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s cynicism entwine into an alliance that compels drastic action—and a shared destiny. There's something a tad more melodramatic in this book's conception (and resolution) than one expects from Whitehead, giving it a drugstore-paperback glossiness that enhances its blunt-edged impact.

Inspired by disclosures of a real-life Florida reform school’s long-standing corruption and abusive practices, Whitehead’s novel displays its author’s facility with violent imagery and his skill at weaving narrative strands into an ingenious if disquieting whole.

Pub Date: July 16, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-385-53707-0

Page Count: 224

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2019

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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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