Still, within the confines of its father-daughter story, a powerful essay on the instinct to both keep and reveal family...

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THE BORDER OF TRUTH

A woman is drawn inexorably deeper into her father’s past as a World War II refugee in Redel’s second novel.

Sara Leader, a New York professor, has a substantial to-do list for the summer of 2003: She needs to complete the bottomless pile of paperwork required to adopt a baby from overseas, get moving on a translation of books and papers by influential German philosopher Walter Benjamin and keep a watchful eye on her elderly father, Richard, a Belgian-born Jew who narrowly escaped the death camps. Sara’s awareness of her father’s past is vague at best; Richard (born Itzak Lejdel) has successfully repelled his daughter’s attempts to learn more about his passage into the U.S. The reader is in on the secret, though: Sara’s story is interspersed with the letters Itzak wrote to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt in September 1940, when he was trapped in U.S. docks aboard a European refugee ship, the Quanza. Amid his descriptions of his first love, his broken-up family and his narrow escape from German-occupied Europe, he emerges as a tender and bright 17-year-old who made more sacrifices than he ever confessed to his daughter. There are strong parallels between Sara’s father and Walter Benjamin, who killed himself in September 1940, despairing of crossing the French-Spanish border and escaping the Nazis, but Redel (Loverboy, 2001) doesn’t oversell that connection, nor does this story become a simplistic tale of father-daughter bonding. Instead, its best moments contain lucid observations about the struggle to uncover family secrets, and to understand the depths of self-hatred and fear that war generates. Other portions of the novel are less convincing: Sara’s relationship with a married man (and her increasing attraction to another suitor) is thinly depicted, as is her relationship with her best friend, who mechanically dispenses tough love at every turn.

Still, within the confines of its father-daughter story, a powerful essay on the instinct to both keep and reveal family secrets.

Pub Date: April 30, 2007

ISBN: 1-58243-366-6

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Counterpoint

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 2007

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Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

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THE VANISHING HALF

Inseparable identical twin sisters ditch home together, and then one decides to vanish.

The talented Bennett fuels her fiction with secrets—first in her lauded debut, The Mothers (2016), and now in the assured and magnetic story of the Vignes sisters, light-skinned women parked on opposite sides of the color line. Desiree, the “fidgety twin,” and Stella, “a smart, careful girl,” make their break from stultifying rural Mallard, Louisiana, becoming 16-year-old runaways in 1954 New Orleans. The novel opens 14 years later as Desiree, fleeing a violent marriage in D.C., returns home with a different relative: her 8-year-old daughter, Jude. The gossips are agog: “In Mallard, nobody married dark....Marrying a dark man and dragging his blueblack child all over town was one step too far.” Desiree's decision seals Jude’s misery in this “colorstruck” place and propels a new generation of flight: Jude escapes on a track scholarship to UCLA. Tending bar as a side job in Beverly Hills, she catches a glimpse of her mother’s doppelgänger. Stella, ensconced in White society, is shedding her fur coat. Jude, so Black that strangers routinely stare, is unrecognizable to her aunt. All this is expertly paced, unfurling before the book is half finished; a reader can guess what is coming. Bennett is deeply engaged in the unknowability of other people and the scourge of colorism. The scene in which Stella adopts her White persona is a tour de force of doubling and confusion. It calls up Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, the book's 50-year-old antecedent. Bennett's novel plays with its characters' nagging feelings of being incomplete—for the twins without each other; for Jude’s boyfriend, Reese, who is trans and seeks surgery; for their friend Barry, who performs in drag as Bianca. Bennett keeps all these plot threads thrumming and her social commentary crisp. In the second half, Jude spars with her cousin Kennedy, Stella's daughter, a spoiled actress.

Kin “[find] each other’s lives inscrutable” in this rich, sharp story about the way identity is formed.

Pub Date: June 2, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-525-53629-1

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Riverhead

Review Posted Online: March 15, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2020

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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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