A fascinating subject and fine storytelling merge in this novel of a Spanish gender-bender.

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CATALINA

A TRUE STORY

A rollicking, captivating account of Catalina d’Erauso, a real-life 17th-century Spanish woman who went to the New World and lived as a man.

Based on Catalina’s own autobiography of her life as the “Lieutenant Nun,” and other historical documents, German debut novelist Orths creates a thoroughly modern narrative filled with tangential tall tales and odd bits of history as Catalina renegotiates the territories of custom and gender. As this version goes, Catalina was born in 1592 in San Sebastian, Spain, on an auspicious day of sun and rain. Her older brother Miguel helped with her birth and from then on was the headstrong Catalina’s primary caretaker. It is when Miguel leaves to run the family’s silver mine in Bolivia that young Catalina hatches her plan—she will risk everything to join Miguel in New Spain. She joins a convent (the only way a young girl can get a good education) and proceeds to become a model student, where the discipline and self-degradation she practices will steel her for the arduous journey. As a young woman, she runs away from the nunnery, taking shelter in a cave in the hills and transforming herself into Francisco Loyola. She moves to the city, where she becomes a physician’s assistant to Juan de Arteaga, and, more importantly, practices the ways of men. She scratches and curses and makes sly eyes at the ladies who pass, takes fencing lessons, roughens her hands and builds muscle so that no one will question her. On a mysterious ship of mute sailors, Francisco and Juan sail to the Americas together, where Catalina secretly searches for her brother. In South America, Catalina/Francisco becomes a soldier, renowned on the field for blood lust, then becomes a gambler, a murderous brawler, is cruel to women and—in short—engenders every undesirable trait of a stereotypical male. Orths refrains from simplifying this portrait of a gender-bending heroine, questioning instead the permeability of identity.

A fascinating subject and fine storytelling merge in this novel of a Spanish gender-bender.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2006

ISBN: 1-59264-165-2

Page Count: 250

Publisher: Toby Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2006

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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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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