A sensitive account of all-too-human characters who fled one oppressive island only to create another for themselves.

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HOW FIRES END

A curse and a vendetta follow two families from Sicily to Connecticut.

Rafalà’s debut comprises a triptych of novella-length sections, each narrated by a resident of Middletown, Connecticut’s Sicilian community. Overshadowing each story is the village of Melilli, Sicily, and its ancestral worship of the martyr St. Sebastian. Two families, the Vassallos and the Morellos, are descended from the original bearers who, centuries before, transported the statue of St. Sebastian to Melilli. David Marconi, a 13-year-old preparing for his confirmation in 1980s Middletown, does not learn that his true surname is Vassallo until he discovers a cache of mementos. He’s been bullied by classmate Tony Morello, and there are dark hints of a long-standing grudge between Rocco, Tony’s father, and David’s father, Salvatore. As David seeks to explain and perhaps end the feud, a tragedy ensues. Salvatore takes up the tale, revealing the cluster of incidents during World War II that caused the Vassallos to become personae non gratae in Melilli. The curse began with the accidental death of Salvatore’s twin brothers, who stumbled on unexploded American ordnance. Vincenzo, a Roman who fought for Mussolini, narrates the final section. His fate becomes intertwined with the Vassallos when he happens upon the family’s mountain hiding place and, later, when he rescues the orphaned Salvatore and his sister, Nella, and moves with them to America. The flowery prose of David’s section, replete with complex imagery, is more distracting than descriptive. Salvatore’s section as well as Vincenzo’s are told in more urgent and telegraphic language, perhaps in keeping with the more fraught times they are living through. David’s story, for all that it expresses his puzzlement over some generational strife to which he is not privy—by design, it would appear—never transcends the trite bullying plotline. As the Morello/Vassallo hostilities extend almost 50 years beyond the original provocation, we wonder why the combatants continue to inhabit the same Connecticut town. It’s a big country.

A sensitive account of all-too-human characters who fled one oppressive island only to create another for themselves.

Pub Date: Oct. 15, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-5420-4297-0

Page Count: 398

Publisher: Little A

Review Posted Online: July 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

THEN SHE WAS GONE

Ten years after her teenage daughter went missing, a mother begins a new relationship only to discover she can't truly move on until she answers lingering questions about the past.

Laurel Mack’s life stopped in many ways the day her 15-year-old daughter, Ellie, left the house to study at the library and never returned. She drifted away from her other two children, Hanna and Jake, and eventually she and her husband, Paul, divorced. Ten years later, Ellie’s remains and her backpack are found, though the police are unable to determine the reasons for her disappearance and death. After Ellie’s funeral, Laurel begins a relationship with Floyd, a man she meets in a cafe. She's disarmed by Floyd’s charm, but when she meets his young daughter, Poppy, Laurel is startled by her resemblance to Ellie. As the novel progresses, Laurel becomes increasingly determined to learn what happened to Ellie, especially after discovering an odd connection between Poppy’s mother and her daughter even as her relationship with Floyd is becoming more serious. Jewell’s (I Found You, 2017, etc.) latest thriller moves at a brisk pace even as she plays with narrative structure: The book is split into three sections, including a first one which alternates chapters between the time of Ellie’s disappearance and the present and a second section that begins as Laurel and Floyd meet. Both of these sections primarily focus on Laurel. In the third section, Jewell alternates narrators and moments in time: The narrator switches to alternating first-person points of view (told by Poppy’s mother and Floyd) interspersed with third-person narration of Ellie’s experiences and Laurel’s discoveries in the present. All of these devices serve to build palpable tension, but the structure also contributes to how deeply disturbing the story becomes. At times, the characters and the emotional core of the events are almost obscured by such quick maneuvering through the weighty plot.

Dark and unsettling, this novel’s end arrives abruptly even as readers are still moving at a breakneck speed.

Pub Date: April 24, 2018

ISBN: 978-1-5011-5464-5

Page Count: 368

Publisher: Atria

Review Posted Online: Feb. 6, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2018

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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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