A political novel anchored, unforgettably, in the realm of the personal. Englander’s story collection promised a brilliant...

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THE MINISTRY OF SPECIAL CASES

The fate of Argentina’s Jews during the 1976–83 “Dirty War” is depicted with blistering emotional intensity in this stark first novel from the author of the story collection For the Relief of Unbearable Urges (1999).

Englander focuses tightly on the family of Kaddish Poznan, who scrapes together a living by obliterating despised surnames (those of “the famous Jewish pimps of Buenos Aires . . . [and] their . . . whores”) from gravestones in a cemetery unvisited by their scandalized relatives. This earns him little respect from his wife, Lillian, who works for a life-insurance firm, and their 19-year-old son Pablo (nicknamed “Pato”), a university student whose political idealism estranges him from his parents’ strategies for survival, as their country’s ruling junta hunts down “undesirables” and innocent citizens swell the ranks of “the disappeared.” A context of uncertainty and terror is gradually defined: Lillian invests in a steel door for their apartment; Kaddish trades his services to a plastic surgeon for rhinoplasties that may make him and Lillian look “less Jewish”; and the precautionary burning of their son’s books in the family’s bathtub sends Pato angrily away from them and into the clutches of their oppressors. Englander’s perfectly engineered plot then takes the distraught parents into the belly of the beast as they importune the police and the eponymous Ministry (a Kafkaesque nightmare of doubletalk and indifferent brutality). They have a chilling confrontation with a prosperous general and his heartless wife and more despairing encounters with a phlegmatic relief worker, a priest who can do good only by circumventing moral action and a self-described “monster” who survives by performing the dirty war’s dirtiest deeds. One stunning twist discloses Pato’s fate in a way neither parent will ever accept, and the novel climaxes where it began, in a cemetery, where Kaddish hopes, against hope, to beat the murderers at their own game.

A political novel anchored, unforgettably, in the realm of the personal. Englander’s story collection promised a brilliant future, and that promise is here fulfilled beyond all expectations.

Pub Date: May 1, 2007

ISBN: 0-375-40493-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Knopf

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2007

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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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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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