Finely wrought fiction eschewing the usual clichés about artistic inspiration in favor of deeper, more organic understanding.

THE SEASON OF MIGRATION

Hermann follows up her well-received debut (The Cure for Grief, 2008) with a sensitive novel about a crucial turning point in the life of Vincent van Gogh.

Shortly after being dismissed from his post as a lay preacher in a Belgian mining town, van Gogh stopped writing to his younger brother, Theo, for 10 months, the only gap in their voluminous correspondence. As Hermann imagines it, the passionate, awkward, unfocused van Gogh knows he’s once again disappointed his parents, and a visit from Theo—comfortably ensconced at Goupil’s, the art dealership where Vincent once worked—makes it clear that his brother too is worried about him. “[D]on’t you want improvement in your life?” Theo asks. “[Y]ou’ve changed so much that you’re just not the same any longer.” This loss of faith by the person closest to him unnerves van Gogh, already shaken by his encounter with the grim realities of mining life and his inability to provide the soothing religious reassurances his father doles out as a minister. Hermann combines an account of Vincent’s long walk toward Paris to see Theo in May 1880 with letters describing his transformative stay in Belgium, which he plans to deliver by hand so his brother can understand what has happened to him. Hermann quietly shows van Gogh drawing compulsively as he trudges miserably through the countryside, poor, sick and starving but always looking with wonder at the world around him. Nightmarish memories of the oppressed miners whose plight he couldn’t ameliorate slowly open up into the realization that “This is life; this is my life. I am witness.” We know, although Vincent does not, that he is on the road to achieving the apotheosis he spoke of in happier times with Theo: “the way an artist could succeed at portraying a feeling in an image…translate not just the beauty of it but the exact joy that we felt.”

Finely wrought fiction eschewing the usual clichés about artistic inspiration in favor of deeper, more organic understanding.

Pub Date: Jan. 6, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-374-25547-3

Page Count: 256

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Oct. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2014

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The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as...

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THE TATTOOIST OF AUSCHWITZ

An unlikely love story set amid the horrors of a Nazi death camp.

Based on real people and events, this debut novel follows Lale Sokolov, a young Slovakian Jew sent to Auschwitz in 1942. There, he assumes the heinous task of tattooing incoming Jewish prisoners with the dehumanizing numbers their SS captors use to identify them. When the Tätowierer, as he is called, meets fellow prisoner Gita Furman, 17, he is immediately smitten. Eventually, the attraction becomes mutual. Lale proves himself an operator, at once cagey and courageous: As the Tätowierer, he is granted special privileges and manages to smuggle food to starving prisoners. Through female prisoners who catalog the belongings confiscated from fellow inmates, Lale gains access to jewels, which he trades to a pair of local villagers for chocolate, medicine, and other items. Meanwhile, despite overwhelming odds, Lale and Gita are able to meet privately from time to time and become lovers. In 1944, just ahead of the arrival of Russian troops, Lale and Gita separately leave the concentration camp and experience harrowingly close calls. Suffice it to say they both survive. To her credit, the author doesn’t flinch from describing the depravity of the SS in Auschwitz and the unimaginable suffering of their victims—no gauzy evasions here, as in Boy in the Striped Pajamas. She also manages to raise, if not really explore, some trickier issues—the guilt of those Jews, like the tattooist, who survived by doing the Nazis’ bidding, in a sense betraying their fellow Jews; and the complicity of those non-Jews, like the Slovaks in Lale’s hometown, who failed to come to the aid of their beleaguered countrymen.

The writing is merely serviceable, and one can’t help but wish the author had found a way to present her material as nonfiction. Still, this is a powerful, gut-wrenching tale that is hard to shake off.

Pub Date: Sept. 4, 2018

ISBN: 978-0-06-279715-5

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: July 17, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2018

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A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.

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THE BOOK WOMAN OF TROUBLESOME CREEK

One of Kentucky’s last living “Blue People” works as a traveling librarian in 1930s Appalachia.

Cussy Mary Carter is a 19-year-old from Troublesome Creek, Kentucky. She was born with a rare genetic condition, and her skin has always been tinged an allover deep blue. Cussy lives with her widowed father, a coal miner who relentlessly attempts to marry her off. Unfortunately, with blue skin and questionable genetics, Cussy is a tough sell. Cussy would rather keep her job as a pack-horse librarian than keep house for a husband anyway. As part of the new governmental program aimed at bringing reading material to isolated rural Kentuckians, Cussy rides a mule over treacherous terrain, delivering books and periodicals to people of limited means. Cussy’s patrons refer to her as “Bluet” or “Book Woman,” and she delights in bringing them books as well as messages, medicine, and advice. When a local pastor takes a nefarious interest in Cussy, claiming that God has sent him to rid society of her “blue demons,” efforts to defend herself leave Cussy at risk of arrest, or worse. The local doctor agrees to protect Cussy in exchange for her submission to medical testing. As Doc finds answers about Cussy’s condition, she begins to re-examine what it means to be a Blue and what life after a cure might look like. Although the novel gets off to a slow start, once Cussy begins traveling to the city for medical testing, the stakes get higher, as does the suspense of the story. Cussy's first-person narrative voice is engaging, laced with a thick Kentucky accent and colloquialisms of Depression-era Appalachia. Through the bigotry and discrimination Cussy suffers as a result of her skin color, the author artfully depicts the insidious behavior that can result when a society’s members feel threatened by things they don't understand. With a focus on the personal joy and broadened horizons that can result from access to reading material, this well-researched tale serves as a solid history lesson on 1930s Kentucky.

A unique story about Appalachia and the healing power of the written word.

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-4926-7152-7

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Sourcebooks Landmark

Review Posted Online: Feb. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2019

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