Lovely and difficult.



A novel in stories from the Israeli author of The One Facing Us (1998) and Bliss (2003).

This is the tale of an Egyptian-Jewish family living in a concrete shack on the outskirts of Tel Aviv in the 1950s and ’60s. There's a father—mostly absent—and a boy and two girls. Then there's the mother, Lucette, and “the mother” is precisely how her children refer to her. To them, she isn’t an individual person so much as she is a force—protean, predictably unpredictable, not quite human. “Our knowledge of her, which was made up of countless inner withdrawals, silent understandings and agreements, a weave of dread and love that kept changing its colors, had us riveted.” The Lucette that her children see is Lucette the immigrant, a woman who works 12-hour days at menial jobs, a woman who is now known by a name in a language she doesn’t even understand—her Hebrew name is Lavana; she speaks only Arabic and French. Everything soft and feminine she left behind in Egypt. Seen through the eyes of the younger daughter, Lucette’s existential instability is the central problem of the book. For this girl, the volatile politics of midcentury Israel mean nothing. It’s the war at home—the home her family struggles to regard as a home, the home that is a physical extension of the mother—that shapes her life. There’s little dialogue here, the setting barely shifts, and most of the action is internal. What Matalon offers instead of a traditional plot is a collection of nearly static scenes, many just a few hundred words in length. Cumulatively, they don’t create a narrative so much as a universe, a universe as rich and carefully drawn as it is harsh. Lucette’s youngest child is a careful observer—both as a girl and as an adult—and there is poetry on every page.

Lovely and difficult.

Pub Date: Aug. 4, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8050-9160-1

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Metropolitan/Henry Holt

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2015

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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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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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These letters from some important executive Down Below, to one of the junior devils here on earth, whose job is to corrupt mortals, are witty and written in a breezy style seldom found in religious literature. The author quotes Luther, who said: "The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn." This the author does most successfully, for by presenting some of our modern and not-so-modern beliefs as emanating from the devil's headquarters, he succeeds in making his reader feel like an ass for ever having believed in such ideas. This kind of presentation gives the author a tremendous advantage over the reader, however, for the more timid reader may feel a sense of guilt after putting down this book. It is a clever book, and for the clever reader, rather than the too-earnest soul.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1942

ISBN: 0060652934

Page Count: 53

Publisher: Macmillan

Review Posted Online: Oct. 17, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 1943

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