A gorgeous, devastating song of freedom that will inevitably be compared to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But it deserves to...

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Based on actual court records, the story of a South African slave who was sentenced to death for murdering her son 50 years before the American Civil War.

Sila was so young when she was kidnapped from her village and sold into slavery that she doesn’t know what part of Africa she came from. Shipped to the Cape Colony, Sila was sold to Oumiesies (the Old Missus), who, after many years, granted Sila’s freedom in her will. Oumiesies’s son Theron defied his mother after her death, denying Sila her emancipation. Instead, she became the property of Van der Wat, a sadist whom Sila, now a grown woman with several children, calls the pig of Plettenberg Bay. Van der Wat beats his slaves, sells off their children and rapes others. Able to bear any cruelty except that done to her offspring, Sila stands up to him. Subsequently, she is charged with the murder of her son and sentenced to death. Only the discovery that Sila is pregnant saves her from hanging. The authorities transport her to Robben Island (where, 150 years later, Nelson Mandela would serve an 18-year sentence). Through days of hard labor—she and the other prisoners, mostly men, break rocks in a quarry—and nights of repeated rape by the guards, Sila remains defiant. She prays that her petition for freedom will reach the English King across the ocean and finds solace and communion in long conversations she conducts with her vision of Baro, the son she set free. South African–born Christiansë captures not only the breadth and complexity of Sila, a heroine for the ages, but also the moral crisis and political turmoil of 19th-century South Africa. Her masters are not all evil. Nor is Sila, as she herself admits, all good.

A gorgeous, devastating song of freedom that will inevitably be compared to Toni Morrison’s Beloved. But it deserves to stand on its own.

Pub Date: Nov. 15, 2006

ISBN: 1-59051-240-5

Page Count: 360

Publisher: Other Press

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2006

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A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

CODE NAME HÉLÈNE

A historical novel explores the intersection of love and war in the life of Australian-born World War II heroine Nancy Grace Augusta Wake.

Lawhon’s (I Was Anastasia, 2018, etc.) carefully researched, lively historical novels tend to be founded on a strategic chronological gambit, whether it’s the suspenseful countdown to the landing of the Hindenberg or the tale of a Romanov princess told backward and forward at once. In her fourth novel, she splits the story of the amazing Nancy Wake, woman of many aliases, into two interwoven strands, both told in first-person present. One begins on Feb. 29th, 1944, when Wake, code-named Hélène by the British Special Operations Executive, parachutes into Vichy-controlled France to aid the troops of the Resistance, working with comrades “Hubert” and “Denden”—two of many vividly drawn supporting characters. “I wake just before dawn with a full bladder and the uncomfortable realization that I am surrounded on all sides by two hundred sex-starved Frenchmen,” she says. The second strand starts eight years earlier in Paris, where Wake is launching a career as a freelance journalist, covering early stories of the Nazi rise and learning to drink with the hardcore journos, her purse-pooch Picon in her lap. Though she claims the dog “will be the great love of [her] life,” she is about to meet the hunky Marseille-based industrialist Henri Fiocca, whose dashing courtship involves French 75 cocktails, unexpected appearances, and a drawn-out seduction. As always when going into battle, even the ones with guns and grenades, Nancy says “I wear my favorite armor…red lipstick.” Both strands offer plenty of fireworks and heroism as they converge to explain all. The author begs forgiveness in an informative afterword for all the drinking and swearing. Hey! No apologies necessary!

A compulsively readable account of a little-known yet extraordinary historical figure—Lawhon’s best book to date.

Pub Date: March 31, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-385-54468-9

Page Count: 464

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Jan. 13, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1, 2020

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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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