A disappointing rehash of pretty conventional spirituality.

THE WITCH OF PORTOBELLO

Coelho (The Devil and Miss Prym, 2006, etc.) returns to his favored (and incredibly successful) territory of spiritual questing in this tedious account of a young woman’s ascendancy as a guru.

Athena is dead, and now a kind of hagiography is being pieced together to better understand this young woman of influence and mystery. A number of testimonies comprise the portrait of Athena, from her adoptive mother, to disciples, to the manager at the bank where she once worked. But instead of creating a rich and varied character study, the assorted narrators repeat the same facile analysis of the meaning of life. We learn that Athena was a Romanian orphan, adopted by a wealthy Lebanese couple. The two dote on their daughter, and turn a blind eye to her youthful visions and prophesies. When Beirut becomes uninhabitable, the family moves to London where Athena attends engineering school. Feeling unfulfilled she forces her student boyfriend into marriage so she can have a child to fill up the vast empty space in her soul; she flits from one endeavor to another to try to fill this unnamable void. She and her husband divorce and she takes up a kind of dervish-style dancing (which she shares with her coworkers at the bank—doubling all of their productivity levels), then moves to Dubai and learns calligraphy from a Bedouin, hoping the patience needed will fix her restlessness. When she goes to Romania to find her birth mother (she’s sure this will help her gain a truer sense of herself), she meets a Scottish woman who becomes her teacher in the search for the universal Mother, a kind of New Age paganism that promises a healing path out of the chaos of modern living. When Athena moves back to London, her popularity (and skill in prophesy) increases, and she develops a following—as well as detractors: Christians who accuse her of Satanism and being a witch. At turns didactic and colorless, Coelho’s narrative captures nothing of the wonder and potential beauty of a life devoted to the spirit—instead, Athena seems little more than a self-indulgent girl.

A disappointing rehash of pretty conventional spirituality.

Pub Date: May 22, 2007

ISBN: 0-06-133880-X

Page Count: 288

Publisher: HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2007

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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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King fans won’t be disappointed, though most will likely prefer the scarier likes of The Shining and It.

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THE INSTITUTE

The master of modern horror returns with a loose-knit parapsychological thriller that touches on territory previously explored in Firestarter and Carrie.

Tim Jamieson is a man emphatically not in a hurry. As King’s (The Outsider, 2018, etc.) latest opens, he’s bargaining with a flight attendant to sell his seat on an overbooked run from Tampa to New York. His pockets full, he sticks out his thumb and winds up in the backwater South Carolina town of DuPray (should we hear echoes of “pray”? Or “depraved”?). Turns out he’s a decorated cop, good at his job and at reading others (“You ought to go see Doc Roper,” he tells a local. “There are pills that will brighten your attitude”). Shift the scene to Minneapolis, where young Luke Ellis, precociously brilliant, has been kidnapped by a crack extraction team, his parents brutally murdered so that it looks as if he did it. Luke is spirited off to Maine—this is King, so it’s got to be Maine—and a secret shadow-government lab where similarly conscripted paranormally blessed kids, psychokinetic and telepathic, are made to endure the Skinnerian pain-and-reward methods of the evil Mrs. Sigsby. How to bring the stories of Tim and Luke together? King has never minded detours into the unlikely, but for this one, disbelief must be extra-willingly suspended. In the end, their forces joined, the two and their redneck allies battle the sophisticated secret agents of The Institute in a bloodbath of flying bullets and beams of mental energy (“You’re in the south now, Annie had told these gunned-up interlopers. She had an idea they were about to find out just how true that was"). It’s not King at his best, but he plays on current themes of conspiracy theory, child abuse, the occult, and Deep State malevolence while getting in digs at the current occupant of the White House, to say nothing of shadowy evil masterminds with lisps.

King fans won’t be disappointed, though most will likely prefer the scarier likes of The Shining and It.

Pub Date: Sept. 10, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-9821-1056-7

Page Count: 576

Publisher: Scribner

Review Posted Online: Aug. 4, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2019

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