An emotionally wrenching account of the battle between wounded reticence and a desire for truth.

MAKE IT CONCRETE

A Jewish ghostwriter for Holocaust survivors becomes haunted by her mother’s silence regarding her own family’s experiences during World War II in this novel.

Isabel Toledo grew up in New York City but relocated to Israel, chasing her obsession with providing written testimony on the behalf of survivors of the horrors of the Holocaust. She’s been at this work for 20 years, relentlessly tackling the tempests of the past. But she’s become cumulatively depleted and is encouraged by many to give up what her mother, Suri, calls a “morbid preoccupation.” Yet she can’t let go: “Twenty years of slipping into survivors’ lives, a warm body between cold sheets, was taking its toll on her. And that mortified her. How dare she complain of hardship?” What Isabel really pines for is to unlock Suri’s “badly sealed pain.” Suri never discusses her experiences during the war, though Isabel has managed to cull meager scraps of information. Suri’s mother, Bella, died in Ukraine while Suri survived somewhere in Siberia. For Isabel, a professional archaeologist of buried secrets, her mother’s silence is profoundly exasperating. David, her often absentee father, has been dead for years and was also intensely private, a historical abyss as well. Meanwhile, Isabel turns to sex to “ground down the pain” of her family’s inadequacies, in particular her mother’s “detachment.” Isabel has an “official boyfriend,” Emanuel, though their relationship has grown stagnant, and two younger paramours on the side. But even her sex life is tinged with the darkness of her monomaniacal interest in the Holocaust, with her predilections depicted with unsettling artistry by Sivan (SNAFU and Other Stories, 2014). The author deftly conjures an atmosphere of formidable inscrutability—Suri’s pain is all the more palpable since it’s unshared. The author’s story is crackling with authentic life—her characters are full and deep, brimming with pathos and eccentricity. And while the traumatic legacy of the Holocaust is well-traversed terrain, Sivan forges a refreshingly original path of her own.

An emotionally wrenching account of the battle between wounded reticence and a desire for truth.

Pub Date: April 9, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-944453-08-4

Page Count: 232

Publisher: Cuidono Press

Review Posted Online: May 14, 2019

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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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