A lyrical little novel about hope triumphing over adversity.

THE LIFE OF AN UNKNOWN MAN

Makine presents a story within a story and thus winds up focusing on the lives of two “unknown men.”

Ivan Shutov has been living in Paris for 20 years but has had only desultory success as a writer. Three years after he wrote a novel about Afghanistan, tensions flared up again in the region, so he was flattered to be invited as a guest on a television show, but his performance there left much to be desired. Meanwhile, his personal life is in shambles, for his girlfriend Léa, half the age of the 50-year-old Shutov, is calling it quits. (As a parting, sarcastic shot she points out that his name in Russian means “clown,” a move Shutov determines is not helpful for his self-esteem.) He had tried to capture some romance in the relationship by comparing their love to that found in Chekhov, but a nice irony is that the Chekhov story that he keeps alluding to is entitled “A Little Joke.” Shutov decides to return to St. Petersburg, in part to find his former lover, Yana, in the hope of rekindling the old flame. Instead, he gets much more than he expected by meeting Georgy Volsky in the boardinghouse where he’s staying. Volsky is an old man who lived through the siege of Leningrad and is now primarily known for being mute, but he opens up to Shutov, spinning out a tale of war, trauma, love and terrible beauty. He survived the siege both because of his devotion to his art (he’s a singer) and to his love, Mila, though in the Stalinist era they were both arrested on trumped charges of crimes against the Soviet state. Volsky’s quiet dignity ultimately helps Shutov see some of the superficiality of his own life.

A lyrical little novel about hope triumphing over adversity.

Pub Date: June 5, 2012

ISBN: 978-1-55597-614-9

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Graywolf

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2012

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Still, a respectful and absorbing page-turner.

THE NIGHTINGALE

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. 20, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2014

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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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