A passionate, digressive, empathetic history of religious rebels and the mystery of faith.


Memoir, fiction, and history combine in a stirring portrayal of the world of the first Christians.

In the 1990s, French novelist, screenwriter, and film producer Carrère (Limonov, 2014, etc.) went through what he calls his “Christian period,” obsessed with matters of faith and prayer. Feeling that he was “touched by grace,” he recorded his thoughts in notebooks and read everything he could to nourish the fervor of his sudden conversion. Now, describing himself as “historical, agnostic,” Carrère draws upon those notebooks as well as diverse historical, biblical, and literary sources to inform his inquiry into the origins of Christianity. Among them are The Life of Jesus by 19th-century historian Ernest Renan, excommunicated because he sought “to give a natural explanation to events that are deemed supernatural”; works by contemporary historian and archaeologist Paul Veyne; historical novels such as Quo Vadis and Memoirs of Hadrian; and even Mel Gibson’s controversial movie The Passion. His most compelling sources are the Gospels of John, Mark, and Luke and the letters and epistles of the demanding, domineering Paul: “I’ve tried to reconstruct what Paul said: the typical discourse heard in the synagogues of Greece and Asia around A.D. 50 by people who converted to a belief that was not yet known as Christianity.” As Carrère portrays him, Paul was “a controversial rabbi,” an irritable, annoying man who could not abide “when people listened to other preachers than him.” Luke comes across as gentler, more temperate and sympathetic. The author examines the Gospels “with a fine-tooth comb,” looking for consistencies, differences, and evidence of their source in a collection of texts known as Q "that tells us how Jesus spoke.” When his own sources fail him, he is “free—and forced—to invent,” which he does, exuberantly. “Christianism was a living organism,” he writes, and it is this organism—protean, fragile, sensational—that Carrère richly re-creates.

A passionate, digressive, empathetic history of religious rebels and the mystery of faith.

Pub Date: March 7, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-374-18430-8

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Review Posted Online: Dec. 7, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 15, 2016

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Constructed with delicacy, lyricism, and care, Hertmans’ novel still feels occasionally static.


A Christian woman and a Jewish man fall in love in medieval France.

In 1088, a Christian girl of Norman descent falls in love with the son of a rabbi. They run away together, to disastrous effect: Her father sends knights after them, and though they flee to a small southern village where they spend a few happy years, their budding family is soon decimated by a violent wave of First Crusaders on their way to Jerusalem. The girl, whose name becomes Hamoutal when she converts to Judaism, winds up roaming the world. Hertmans’ (War and Turpentine, 2016, etc.) latest novel is based on a true story: The Cairo Genizah, a trove of medieval manuscripts preserved in an Egyptian synagogue, contained an account of Hamoutal’s plight. Hamoutal makes up about half of Hertmans’ novel; the other half is consumed by Hertmans’ own interest in her story. Whenever he can, he follows her journey: from Rouen, where she grew up, to Monieux, where she and David Todros—her Jewish husband—made a brief life for themselves, and all the way to Cairo, and back. “Knowing her life story and its tragic end,” Hertmans writes, “I wish I could warn her of what lies ahead.” The book has a quiet intimacy to it, and in his descriptions of landscape and travel, Hertmans’ prose is frequently lovely. In Narbonne, where David’s family lived, Hertmans describes “the cool of the paving stones in the late morning, the sound of doves’ wings flapping in the immaculate air.” But despite the drama of Hamoutal’s story, there is a static quality to the book, particularly in the sections where Hertmans describes his own travels. It’s an odd contradiction: Hertmans himself moves quickly through the world, but his book doesn’t quite move quickly enough.

Constructed with delicacy, lyricism, and care, Hertmans’ novel still feels occasionally static.

Pub Date: Feb. 4, 2020

ISBN: 978-1-5247-4708-4

Page Count: 304

Publisher: Pantheon

Review Posted Online: Oct. 14, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2019

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.


In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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