Eve is a natural storyteller; too bad the paint-by-numbers ending undermines her riveting portrait of the lost culture of...

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HENNA HOUSE

Eve (The Family Orchard, 2000) re-creates the exotic, unfamiliar world of Yemen’s complex Jewish community from the 1920s through its wholesale exodus to Israel in 1949-50 through one young woman’s eyes.

The Damari family lives in Qaraah, a small Northern Yemen village, where their loving but sickly father owns a leather shop. In 1923, the local enforcer of the Orphans Decree—an actual law that allowed Muslims to forcibly remove and adopt fatherless Jewish children—shows particular interest in 5-year-old Adela Damari. Given her father’s precarious health, Adela grows up under a cloud of fear. The only way to avoid adoption is to become betrothed, a common-enough event for children in her culture. Unfortunately, Adela’s fiances keep dying, one of several bits of semimagical realism in the novel. Finally, thanks to her tough-minded mother’s trickery, Adela finds herself engaged at age 8 to her first cousin Asaf, recently arrived with his spice-merchant father from India. Their childhood romance progresses until Asaf must leave Qaraah with his father. Not yet in puberty, Adela pines for him, but her life changes dramatically in 1930 when another uncle moves to Qaraah with his wife, Rahel, a healer and gifted henna dyer—who knew henna was important in Eastern Jewish culture?—and their daughter, Hani. Despite her tradition-bound mother’s disapproval and distrust, Adela is immediately drawn to her sophisticated, imaginative and warmhearted relatives. Hani, who teaches her to read, becomes Adela’s most trusted friend. Rahel teaches her the art of henna. But happiness shatters in 1933 when drought and illness strike. Adela, now a young woman of 15, flees with Hani’s family to British-controlled Aden. Asaf reappears in their lives the next year. Suddenly the novel switches gears: Leisurely, slightly mystical, bittersweet reminiscence gives way to rushed melodrama as betrayal and sexuality mix under the long shadow of  World War II.

Eve is a natural storyteller; too bad the paint-by-numbers ending undermines her riveting portrait of the lost culture of Yemeni Jews.

Pub Date: Aug. 12, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4027-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: June 5, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2014

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An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

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DEACON KING KONG

The versatile and accomplished McBride (Five Carat Soul, 2017, etc.) returns with a dark urban farce crowded with misjudged signals, crippling sorrows, and unexpected epiphanies.

It's September 1969, just after Apollo 11 and Woodstock. In a season of such events, it’s just as improbable that in front of 16 witnesses occupying the crowded plaza of a Brooklyn housing project one afternoon, a hobbling, dyspeptic, and boozy old church deacon named Cuffy Jasper "Sportcoat" Lambkin should pull out a .45-caliber Luger pistol and shoot off an ear belonging to the neighborhood’s most dangerous drug dealer. The 19-year-old victim’s name is Deems Clemens, and Sportcoat had coached him to be “the best baseball player the projects had ever seen” before he became “a poison-selling murderous meathead.” Everybody in the project presumes that Sportcoat is now destined to violently join his late wife, Hettie, in the great beyond. But all kinds of seemingly disconnected people keep getting in destiny's way, whether it’s Sportcoat’s friend Pork Sausage or Potts, a world-weary but scrupulous white policeman who’s hoping to find Sportcoat fast enough to protect him from not only Deems’ vengeance, but the malevolent designs of neighborhood kingpin Butch Moon. All their destines are somehow intertwined with those of Thomas “The Elephant” Elefante, a powerful but lonely Mafia don who’s got one eye trained on the chaos set off by the shooting and another on a mysterious quest set in motion by a stranger from his crime-boss father’s past. There are also an assortment of salsa musicians, a gentle Nation of Islam convert named Soup, and even a tribe of voracious red ants that somehow immigrated to the neighborhood from Colombia and hung around for generations, all of which seems like too much stuff for any one book to handle. But as he's already shown in The Good Lord Bird (2013), McBride has a flair for fashioning comedy whose buoyant outrageousness barely conceals both a steely command of big and small narrative elements and a river-deep supply of humane intelligence.

An exuberant comic opera set to the music of life.

Pub Date: March 3, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-7352-1672-3

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: Dec. 9, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2020

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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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