A rare disappointment from one of England’s finest writers.

TOBY'S ROOM

Booker Prize winner Barker revisits some students at the Slade art school in the years before and after their experiences in Life Class (2008).

Part One, set in 1912, explains one reason why Elinor Brooke is the Slade’s edgiest student; on a visit to her wealthy parents’ country home, she has an incestuous one-night stand with her brother, Toby. Elinor flings herself into a dissection class at London Hospital, hoping to elevate her life-drawing skills to the exacting standards of Slade professor Henry Tonks. She also becomes close friends with arrogant, ambitious Kit Neville and meets new Slade student Paul Tarrant just before Part Two sweeps us ahead to 1917, in the thick of World War I. Toby is missing, believed killed; Paul and Kit have both been wounded, Kit with facial injuries that take him to Queen’s Hospital, where Tonks makes portraits of the disfigured men to assist the medical staff. “How can any human being endure this?” Elinor wonders as she looks at this work. It’s a rare moment of compassion for Elinor, who has hardened noticeably in the five-year interval and is obsessed with finding out what happened to Toby. A note among his belongings sent home from the front suggests that Kit knows something, and Elinor enlists her erstwhile lover Paul—whom she’s barely visited since he was wounded—to confront Kit in the hospital. Kit refuses to tell them anything, but the sordid truth about Toby’s fate does eventually come out. War’s horrors are a familiar subject for Barker, and she has always been a trenchant, uncompromising writer, but this sour work is far below the best pages of Life Class, let alone the majestic pessimism of her masterpiece, the Regeneration trilogy (Regeneration, 1992, etc.). Here, she seems to be exploring with diminishing returns themes that once displayed her gifts more fully.

A rare disappointment from one of England’s finest writers.

Pub Date: Oct. 2, 2012

ISBN: 978-0-385-52436-0

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Aug. 29, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2012

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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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Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

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ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE

Doerr presents us with two intricate stories, both of which take place during World War II; late in the novel, inevitably, they intersect.

In August 1944, Marie-Laure LeBlanc is a blind 16-year-old living in the walled port city of Saint-Malo in Brittany and hoping to escape the effects of Allied bombing. D-Day took place two months earlier, and Cherbourg, Caen and Rennes have already been liberated. She’s taken refuge in this city with her great-uncle Etienne, at first a fairly frightening figure to her. Marie-Laure’s father was a locksmith and craftsman who made scale models of cities that Marie-Laure studied so she could travel around on her own. He also crafted clever and intricate boxes, within which treasures could be hidden. Parallel to the story of Marie-Laure we meet Werner and Jutta Pfennig, a brother and sister, both orphans who have been raised in the Children’s House outside Essen, in Germany. Through flashbacks we learn that Werner had been a curious and bright child who developed an obsession with radio transmitters and receivers, both in their infancies during this period. Eventually, Werner goes to a select technical school and then, at 18, into the Wehrmacht, where his technical aptitudes are recognized and he’s put on a team trying to track down illegal radio transmissions. Etienne and Marie-Laure are responsible for some of these transmissions, but Werner is intrigued since what she’s broadcasting is innocent—she shares her passion for Jules Verne by reading aloud 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. A further subplot involves Marie-Laure’s father’s having hidden a valuable diamond, one being tracked down by Reinhold von Rumpel, a relentless German sergeant-major.

Doerr captures the sights and sounds of wartime and focuses, refreshingly, on the innate goodness of his major characters.

Pub Date: May 6, 2014

ISBN: 978-1-4767-4658-6

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: March 6, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2014

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