Chaotically plotted, but brings this turbulent age to vibrant life with sympathetic characters, both minor and major.

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GIRL MARY

A down-to-earth Virgin Mary fields offers from Joseph and Pontius Pilate.

Romanian-born novelist/memoirist Popescu (Footprints in Time, 2008, etc.) grafts the story of adolescent Mary onto the dilemma of Eve, who was, he intimates, set up by the Creator to be both the repository of humanity’s hopes and the mother of all scapegoats. When Mary’s not puzzling out sexual politics, she’s the de facto leader of her clan, which has been exiled from Nazareth by King Herod the Great. We first see her through the eyes of handsome young Roman Apella (aka Pontius Pilatus). The last scion of a family executed by Augustus Caesar, he has been appointed through a convoluted chain of happenstance to be Augustus’ spy in Israel. Although he’s pledged to marry Caesar’s niece, Apella is immediately smitten with 17-year-old Mary, who saved her tribe from certain death in the desert by discovering a well, and offers her the status of a favored bondwoman in his household. Mary, though attracted to Apella, loves Joseph, a woodcarver apprenticed to her father, who disappeared during the Jewish gang wars (fomented by Herod) that drove her clan out of Nazareth. As the Nazarenes, assured by Apella of Herod’s forgiveness, prepare to return home, Mary learns that Joseph, who has made a fortune sculpting statues, is now betrothed to the daughters of the competing gang leaders and is requesting Mary’s hand as third wife. Stung, but not considering bondwoman-ship an acceptable alternative, Mary climbs Mount Barak to consult the Creator himself. He tells her, in effect, that all she has to do is wait for the men to make their usual hash of things. Sure enough, the gang leaders perish or flee, removing their daughters as competition. Popescu ingeniously skirts the thorny question of the virgin birth: Mary seems to have gotten pregnant the old-fashioned way. Or has she?

Chaotically plotted, but brings this turbulent age to vibrant life with sympathetic characters, both minor and major.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2009

ISBN: 978-1-4165-3263-7

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2009

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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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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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