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AUSTERLITZ

Superbly translated, hypnotically written, a volume that requires and rewards slow, careful reading.

Another haunting mixture of history, memoir, and photo album from the author of The Rings of Saturn (1998) and Vertigo (2000).

Sebald’s fourth novel, like its predecessors, is a melancholy meditation on the dark side of human history. The unnamed narrator recounts the life story of Jacques Austerlitz, a polymath whose erudition, like the author’s, runs the gamut from his chosen field of architectural history to his avocation of zoology. Meeting by chance in the Antwerp railroad station, Austerlitz and the narrator fall easily into a learned conversation about the building itself that gradually leads to a discussion of the history and mysteries of Europe’s fortified cities. A friendship of sorts develops and the two meet from time to time, at first apparently without planning, to continue their chat as if no time had elapsed in between. Gradually, Austerlitz begins to reveal his personal history. In 1939, at the age of five, he was adopted and raised by an austere Welsh cleric and his equally forbidding wife. He knows nothing of his past until he is encouraged to explore history by an inspirational teacher. Eventually, Austerlitz discovers that he is a child of a Jewish couple who vanished in the Holocaust after sending him to England to escape—no surprise to those who are familiar with Sebald’s earlier work. Austerlitz recounts his story in a low-key, slow-moving, but utterly engrossing prose style, with almost no paragraph or chapter breaks, interrupted only by a series of eerie photographs of landscapes, architectural features, and hazily glimpsed faces. The tale is cunningly constructed around internal echoes, phrases repeated many pages apart, whose larger significance can be grasped only on repetition, and a complex, multilayered set of thematic correspondences that cannot be unraveled on a single reading.

Superbly translated, hypnotically written, a volume that requires and rewards slow, careful reading.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2001

ISBN: 0-375-50483-4

Page Count: 320

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: May 19, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2001

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THE NIGHTINGALE

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Hannah’s new novel is an homage to the extraordinary courage and endurance of Frenchwomen during World War II.

In 1995, an elderly unnamed widow is moving into an Oregon nursing home on the urging of her controlling son, Julien, a surgeon. This trajectory is interrupted when she receives an invitation to return to France to attend a ceremony honoring passeurs: people who aided the escape of others during the war. Cut to spring, 1940: Viann has said goodbye to husband Antoine, who's off to hold the Maginot line against invading Germans. She returns to tending her small farm, Le Jardin, in the Loire Valley, teaching at the local school and coping with daughter Sophie’s adolescent rebellion. Soon, that world is upended: The Germans march into Paris and refugees flee south, overrunning Viann’s land. Her long-estranged younger sister, Isabelle, who has been kicked out of multiple convent schools, is sent to Le Jardin by Julien, their father in Paris, a drunken, decidedly unpaternal Great War veteran. As the depredations increase in the occupied zone—food rationing, systematic looting, and the billeting of a German officer, Capt. Beck, at Le Jardin—Isabelle’s outspokenness is a liability. She joins the Resistance, volunteering for dangerous duty: shepherding downed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees to Spain. Code-named the Nightingale, Isabelle will rescue many before she's captured. Meanwhile, Viann’s journey from passive to active resistance is less dramatic but no less wrenching. Hannah vividly demonstrates how the Nazis, through starvation, intimidation and barbarity both casual and calculated, demoralized the French, engineering a community collapse that enabled the deportations and deaths of more than 70,000 Jews. Hannah’s proven storytelling skills are ideally suited to depicting such cataclysmic events, but her tendency to sentimentalize undermines the gravitas of this tale.

Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

Pub Date: Feb. 3, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-312-57722-3

Page Count: 448

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules...

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Sentenced to house arrest in Moscow's Metropol Hotel by a Bolshevik tribunal for writing a poem deemed to encourage revolt, Count Alexander Rostov nonetheless lives the fullest of lives, discovering the depths of his humanity.

Inside the elegant Metropol, located near the Kremlin and the Bolshoi, the Count slowly adjusts to circumstances as a "Former Person." He makes do with the attic room, to which he is banished after residing for years in a posh third-floor suite. A man of refined taste in wine, food, and literature, he strives to maintain a daily routine, exploring the nooks and crannies of the hotel, bonding with staff, accepting the advances of attractive women, and forming what proves to be a deeply meaningful relationship with a spirited young girl, Nina. "We are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade," says the companionable narrator. For the Count, that way of life ultimately becomes less about aristocratic airs and privilege than generosity and devotion. Spread across four decades, this is in all ways a great novel, a nonstop pleasure brimming with charm, personal wisdom, and philosophic insight. Though Stalin and Khrushchev make their presences felt, Towles largely treats politics as a dark, distant shadow. The chill of the political events occurring outside the Metropol is certainly felt, but for the Count and his friends, the passage of time is "like the turn of a kaleidoscope." Not for nothing is Casablanca his favorite film. This is a book in which the cruelties of the age can't begin to erase the glories of real human connection and the memories it leaves behind.

A masterly encapsulation of modern Russian history, this book more than fulfills the promise of Towles' stylish debut, Rules of Civility (2011).

Pub Date: Sept. 6, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-670-02619-7

Page Count: 480

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: June 20, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2016

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