Indeed, the greatest tragedy of Ulitskaya’s story is that it comes to an end. Worthy of shelving alongside Doctor Zhivago:...

THE BIG GREEN TENT

A sweeping novel of life in the Cold War Soviet Union, with plenty between the lines about life in Putin’s Russia today.

With only a dozen or so major characters, Ulitskaya’s (Sonechka, 2005, etc.) latest doesn’t threaten to rival War and Peace or The Possessed on the dramatis personae front. Still, it obviously harbors epic intentions and ambitions, spanning years and lifetimes and treating the largest possible themes. The latter include some of the most classic questions of all: the nature of love, the value of friendship, and, inevitably, the sorrow of betrayal. The early part of the story is set in the tumultuous years following the death of Josef Stalin (which, Ulitskaya notes with quiet satisfaction, occurred on Purim), when three schoolboys bond in friendship. Nerdy and bookish, they are playground victims, despised as outcasts and outsiders precisely “due to their complete disinclination to fight or be cruel.” As the three grow into manhood, they struggle against the odds to remain more or less pure of heart even as Soviet society enters into a new era of anti-Semitism and oppression—for though Stalin is dead, his machinery of terror lives on. Still outsiders, Ilya, Sanya, and Mikha are artists, intellectuals, dissidents. If Mikha begins with the most promise, not only blessed with an endlessly curious mind, but also “possessed of an inchoate creative fire,” the others are brilliant, too. Among many other things, Ulitskaya’s novel is also about the power of books, writing, and music to shape lives worth living. But more, it is about what happens to people inside a prison society: denunciations, hardship, and punishment ensue as surely as night follows day. The novel is impressively vast in scope and commodious in shape; still, reading of, say, Ilya’s love for the resonant Olga, “with her slightly chapped lips, her pale freckles sprinkled over her white skin, the center of his life,” one wants more.

Indeed, the greatest tragedy of Ulitskaya’s story is that it comes to an end. Worthy of shelving alongside Doctor Zhivago: memorable and moving.

Pub Date: Nov. 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-374-16667-0

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2015

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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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