As often happens in novels that travel between past and present, the past sparkles while the present pales.

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A LADY CYCLIST'S GUIDE TO KASHGAR

British first-time novelist Joinson intersperses a missionary’s adventures along the war-torn Silk Road to China in 1923 with a young woman’s more mundane travails in modern-day London.

Eva has accompanied her younger sister Lizzie, a talented photographer, and Lizzie’s domineering religious mentor Millicent to Asia in 1923 without missionary zeal but in search of adventure. Traveling by bicycle, Eva keeps a notebook she hopes to turn into a book about the journey. After the mother of a baby Millicent has delivered dies, the three British women are placed under house arrest in the Muslim city of Kashgar. As their safety deteriorates, Eva becomes uncomfortably aware of raw sexual tension between emotionally fragile, epileptic Lizzie and authoritarian, religiously fanatic Millicent. Millicent sloughs responsibility for the orphaned infant, called Ai-Lien, onto Eva. Initially, Eva resents the responsibility but soon becomes a passionately devoted mother. Shift to London and Frieda, a think-tank specialist on Islamic youth. Just returned from a researching trip in an unnamed Middle Eastern country in turmoil, Frieda realizes that her five-year affair with her married lover may be ending and learns that she has been named as the only relative and beneficiary in the will of a dead woman named Irene Guy. Eva has never heard of her. Having befriended Tayeb, a homeless Sudanese filmmaker with an expired visa who has been camping out in her hallway, Eva suggests he stay in Irene’s now vacant flat. Slowly Frieda and Eva’s connections are revealed. Each struggles to find her voice and independence despite social pressures. Each must define love for herself, even if it defies convention. Not only do the exotic locale and life-and-death violence make Eva’s story more riveting than Frieda’s, but she is also a more compelling heroine; her life defies formulaic expectations, while Frieda’s romantic evolution is familiar to any reader of women’s fiction.

As often happens in novels that travel between past and present, the past sparkles while the present pales.

Pub Date: June 1, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-60819-811-5

Page Count: 384

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: May 24, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 15, 2012

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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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