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

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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The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

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A LITTLE LIFE

Four men who meet as college roommates move to New York and spend the next three decades gaining renown in their professions—as an architect, painter, actor and lawyer—and struggling with demons in their intertwined personal lives.

Yanagihara (The People in the Trees, 2013) takes the still-bold leap of writing about characters who don’t share her background; in addition to being male, JB is African-American, Malcolm has a black father and white mother, Willem is white, and “Jude’s race was undetermined”—deserted at birth, he was raised in a monastery and had an unspeakably traumatic childhood that’s revealed slowly over the course of the book. Two of them are gay, one straight and one bisexual. There isn’t a single significant female character, and for a long novel, there isn’t much plot. There aren’t even many markers of what’s happening in the outside world; Jude moves to a loft in SoHo as a young man, but we don’t see the neighborhood change from gritty artists’ enclave to glitzy tourist destination. What we get instead is an intensely interior look at the friends’ psyches and relationships, and it’s utterly enthralling. The four men think about work and creativity and success and failure; they cook for each other, compete with each other and jostle for each other’s affection. JB bases his entire artistic career on painting portraits of his friends, while Malcolm takes care of them by designing their apartments and houses. When Jude, as an adult, is adopted by his favorite Harvard law professor, his friends join him for Thanksgiving in Cambridge every year. And when Willem becomes a movie star, they all bask in his glow. Eventually, the tone darkens and the story narrows to focus on Jude as the pain of his past cuts deep into his carefully constructed life.  

The phrase “tour de force” could have been invented for this audacious novel.

Pub Date: March 10, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-385-53925-8

Page Count: 720

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Dec. 22, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 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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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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