Of a piece with Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (2009) as a philosophically charged novel of an ever-more-distant time,...

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THE EMPEROR OF LIES

A Swedish bestseller, this sprawling, Dickensian novel of the Holocaust now lands in America, where it is sure to attract attention.

Based on historical fact and a real-life central character, Sem-Sandberg’s magnum opus is set in the Jewish ghetto of Lodz, Poland. The time is the winter of 1940, when the Nazi invaders have newly arrived to find an apparently willing accomplice in a very unpleasant man named Chaim Rumkowski. Sadistic and abusive in every possible way, Rumkowski has an odd dream: He believes that he can “demonstrate to the authorities what capable workers the Jews are,” thereby convincing the Nazis to turn all of Lodz into what would eventually become “a Jewish free state under Nazi supremacy, where freedom had been honestly won at the price of hard work.” Against the awful figure of Rumkowski, who Sem-Sandberg allows to come out of the shadows only slowly, stand other characters, real and imagined: Rumkowski’s sister, horrendous in her vanity; Gertler the policeman, a law unto himself; Adam, hooked of nose and in care of a mentally disabled sibling, both the kind of people the Nazis want very much to exterminate. The Nazis, of course, are very bad indeed, as they reveal with little ceremony from the first, and especially when the deportations to the death camps begin. But the Jewish administrators of the ghetto are perfectly capable of inflicting terror on their own people; Sem-Sandberg risks courting controversy by revisiting this complicity with evil, as he does by allowing the possibility that Rumkowski may have honestly believed that he was saving his fellow Jews by his acts—a possibility that historians have lately been wrestling with. Sem-Sandberg is very good with period details, and most of his scenarios seem well founded, though often the prose strays into melodrama.  

Of a piece with Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones (2009) as a philosophically charged novel of an ever-more-distant time, written by one who was not there to see those terrible events firsthand.

Pub Date: Sept. 1, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-374-13964-3

Page Count: 672

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Aug. 11, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1, 2011

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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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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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