Improbable, sure, but that’s not a bad thing in a historical romance this vivid and entertaining.

ISLE OF PASSION

The Colombian author’s previously untranslated 1999 debut novel is arguably her best: a ripping yarn that recreates an obscure historical incident.

In 1908, half-French Mexican Army officer Ramón Arnaud, who had been disciplined and cashiered for insubordination and cowardice, was sent to act as lieutenant governor on remote Clipperton Island. That outpost—named for a notorious English pirate who had sheltered there (and previously dubbed “Isle of Passion” by the celebrated voyager Magellan)—though ostensibly vulnerable to attack by France, is only a barren wasteland: a volcanic atoll virtually bereft of tillable soil, ringed by perilous underwater coral reefs and far from civilization, in the northern Pacific Ocean off Mexico’s western coast. Restrepo’s increasingly engaging narrative juxtaposes the Arnaud party’s ordeal (late-arriving supply ships, a catastrophic hurricane, a plague of scurvy that decimates the island’s small populace, the consequences of failed escape attempts) with a nameless journalist’s efforts, two centuries later, to interview the Clipperton adventurers’ surviving relatives, and thus piece together a separate history virtually ignorant of (though profoundly affected by) the Mexican Revolution, World Wars and the inevitable seepage of fact into legend. The story drags initially, as the narrative structure painstakingly reveals itself. But Restrepo energizes it with persuasive characterizations of conflicted, intermittently megalomaniacal Ramón, his courageous wife Alicia (who ultimately becomes the islander’s savior) and two splendidly imagined antagonists: German hydraulics engineer Gustav Schultz (engaged by a company that processes the Clipperton birds’ rich guano deposits), and the island’s own Caliban, lighthouse keeper Victoriano Alvarez, who rises eerily from the dead, tests the resourceful Alicia’s wits and will and precipitates a climactic battle that threatens her comrades’ last hope of rescue and survival.

Improbable, sure, but that’s not a bad thing in a historical romance this vivid and entertaining.

Pub Date: Nov. 1, 2005

ISBN: 0-06-008898-2

Page Count: 272

Publisher: Ecco/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 15, 2005

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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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