A tender, enlightening debut that, urban setting aside, reads like a comedy of provincial manners.

SEVEN BLESSINGS

A gentle evocation of love and faith in Jerusalem’s Orthodox community.

There are peevish singles in the “City of Peace,” a small crowd of Orthodox thirty- and forty-somethings, smart and independent to a fault, whose recreational hours are made up of long-drawn-out flirtations with the Torah. It’s enough to drive a matchmaker up the Weeping Wall. Especially Tsippi, who emerged from Treblinka with an extraordinary motive for making matches (“Every couple she brought together—saliva in Hitler’s stupefied face”). Her chief frustration is Beth, a never-been-kissed American who walks away from a string of favorable dates with Akiva, a sensitive house-painter plagued by violent twitches and spasms. King then seems, like a Jewish Jane Austen, to insinuate into the tale a rakish rival for Beth’s halfhearted affection. But Beth and Binyamin don’t hit it off; the latter, a cynical artist who adds Jewish symbols to his canvases in order to increase sales, finds in every potential mate an intolerable aesthetic flaw. The hyper-virginal and hyper-intellectual Beth becomes a Bridget Jones in reverse, obsessing over her nability to desire a man; she breaks down, buys sexy tangerine panties, makes a play for Akiva. Meanwhile, Tsippi and fellow matchmaker Judy begin to find their own marriages wanting; each discovering, largely through renewed interest in Torah studies, a fervent rekindling of the hearth. Much of the story’s strength rises from King’s generous description of Jerusalem, from fig and acacia trees to synagogues and tomb factories. Especially of interest are the numerous passages involving the characters’ performance of Orthodox rituals and their deep pokings-about into theology. Their religious principles keep the tale on the straight and narrow path of 19th-century literature: there’s no sex here, though Akiva does caress Beth’s shoe with obvious yearning while sitting in the park.

A tender, enlightening debut that, urban setting aside, reads like a comedy of provincial manners.

Pub Date: Aug. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-312-30915-5

Page Count: 256

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 2003

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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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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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