Beautifully written evidence that some of the most interesting writing in English is coming from the edges of old empires.

IN THE LIGHT OF WHAT WE KNOW

War can divide friends. But then again, so can peace and all that falls between, the spaces inhabited by this ambitious, elegiac debut novel by Bangladeshi-British writer Rahman.

The unnamed protagonist is a brilliant 40-something math whiz–turned-financier who comes from privilege; his father, a Pakistani physicist, is fond of whiskey, his mother scornful of religious pieties (“[n]ot for her such opiates”). The story, though, turns on his mysterious friend Zafar; raised more modestly, he made a fortune as a derivatives trader yet has apparently acquired enough martial skills along the way to thrash a gang of ill-meaning neo-Nazis in a London mews. Now, as the book opens, he is back in London from a harrowing journey both geographical and metaphysical, his talisman being Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem (“the world was foolish to ignore it in an age of dogma”), his life a scatter burst of fragments. Rahman’s narrative quickly takes flight, literally, moving from London and New York to Islamabad and Kabul and points beyond as the narrator comes to flourish, oddly, in a post-9/11 world where he and his South Asian compatriots are no longer merely local-color background. Rahman capably mixes a story that threatens to erupt into le Carré–like intrigue with intellectual disquisitions of uncommon breadth, whether touching on the geometry of map projections or the finer points of Dante; the reader will learn about Poggendorf illusions, scads of math and the reason flags fly at half-mast along the way. A betrayal complicates matters, but in the end, Rahman’s is a quiet, philosophical novel of ideas, a meditation on memory, friendship and trust: “Such regrets as I have are few,” says his narrator; “I am not an old man, but even if there had been time enough to accumulate regrets, I do not think my constitution works that way.”

Beautifully written evidence that some of the most interesting writing in English is coming from the edges of old empires.

Pub Date: April 22, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-374-17562-7

Page Count: 544

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Feb. 19, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2014

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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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Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

THE WINTER GUEST

An 18-year-old Polish girl falls in love, swoons over a first kiss, dreams of marriage—and, oh yes, we are in the middle of the Holocaust.

Jenoff (The Ambassador’s Daughter, 2013, etc.) weaves a tale of fevered teenage love in a time of horrors in the early 1940s, as the Nazis invade Poland and herd Jews into ghettos and concentration camps. A prologue set in 2013, narrated by a resident of the Westchester Senior Center, provides an intriguing setup. A woman and a policeman visit the resident and ask if she came from a small Polish village. Their purpose is unclear until they mention bones recently found there: “And we think you might know something about them.” The book proceeds in the third person, told from the points of view mostly of teenage Helena, who comes upon an injured young Jewish-American soldier, and sometimes of her twin, Ruth, who is not as adventurous as Helena but is very competitive with her. Their father is dead, their mother is dying in a hospital, and they are raising their three younger siblings amid danger and hardship. The romance between Helena and Sam, the soldier, is often conveyed in overheated language that doesn’t sit well with the era’s tragic events: “There had been an intensity to his embrace that said he was barely able to contain himself, that he also wanted more.” Jenoff, clearly on the side of tolerance, slips in a simplified historical framework for the uninformed. But she also feeds stereotypes, having Helena note that Sam has “a slight arch to his nose” and a dark complexion that “would make him suspect as a Jew immediately.” Clichés also pop up during the increasingly complex plot: “But even if they stood in place, the world around them would not.”

Romance and melodrama mix uneasily with mass murder.

Pub Date: Aug. 26, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-7783-1596-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Harlequin MIRA

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2014

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