Sunday, 30 June 2019

Fiction from Fact

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is Heather Morris' bestselling novel is based on the true story of a survivor of the Holocaust. It is a simply written love story that can be read quickly, so it is easy to see why it has been optioned for film and is popular with book clubs.

Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, was transported to Auschwitz and Birkenau in April 1942. His intelligence and ability to speak numerous languages made him a valuable asset to his captors. Lale was put to work as the tattooist, inking numbers into the forearms of his fellow prisoners. In exchange he was given certain privileges, like food rations and better accomodation, but he remained a prisoner nonetheless and always needed to be aware that one false step could result in torture or death.

One day, Lale tattoos a young woman named Gita and he falls in love at first sight. His passion for Gita compels him to survive the war and be with his love. The lengths he will go to in order to protect Gita and find some happiness in the most dire of circumstances is what has made the book a popular novel.

I have a keen interest in history and have spent time learning about the Holocaust, travelling to Auschwitz and Birkenau, and visiting Jewish history museums in Berlin, Warsaw, Krakow, Vienna, Prague, and Budapest. It is essential that the stories of those who lived through the terrors of the second World War are told, especially as we are nearing a time when there will be no one left who can give a first-hand account.

The main gate at Birkenau (June 2017)

Which is perhaps why Morris' book troubled me. In spinning a tale of romance and survival, I believe Morris has done a disservice to Sokolov, watering down the horrors of war and crafting some truly terrible dialogue. Morris has faced some criticism for the artistic license she has taken in telling Sokolov's story. She makes it clear that this is a fictionalised account, so this criticism doesn't bother me as much as the poor writing. Perhaps in the hands of a better writer, Sokolov's tale would have been more compelling.

There are certainly much better works exploring the war - both fiction and non-fiction - which are much better written. I would recommend Anne Frank's Diary of a Young Girl, Elie Wiesel's Night, Bernhard Schlink's The Reader, Thomas Keneally's Schindler's Ark, and Irene Nemirovsky's Suite Francaise, to name a few. I would recommend skipping Morris' novel and picking up one of these titles instead.

Sunday, 23 June 2019

Modern Love

Earlier this month Tayari Jones won the prestigious Women's Prize for fiction for her stunning novel An American Marriage (2018). I cheered aloud when Jones won, as I had just finished reading this remarkable novel while on holidays in Morocco.

An American Marriage is the story of newlyweds Celestial and Roy. He is an ambitious businessman, keen to be successful and ready to start a family. She us a talented artist who is wants to focus on her career and build her doll-making business. Barely a year into their marriage they are still navigating their lives together when tragedy strikes, and a miscarriage of justice sees Roy incarcerated. Both have to adjust to their new circumstances and thwarted ambition. Will their love survive his sentence?

Told in alternating points of view, often through letters to each other, Jones has crafted truly memorable and realistic characters.  This is the story of how people cope with change, the expectations on relationships, and the nature of love. An American Marriage is also a damning indictment on the American judicial system and the deep racism that pervades all aspects of society. As the Women's Prize judges claimed, Jones 'shines a light on today's America'.

Heartbreaking and beautiful, this novel will stay with me for a long time and I suspect will end up on my list of favourite reads in 2019.  Highly recommended for anyone interested in a moving, intimate, character-driven story.

Twisted Sister

At this year's Sydney Writers' Festival I attended a session with Nigerian author Oyinkan Braithwaite about her debut novel, My Sister, the Serial Killer (2018).  I so enjoyed the excerpts Braithwaite read from her book, and her journey as a writer, that I purchased a copy and quickly read it after the festival.

This is the story of two sisters and their strong familial ties. Korede, the narrator, is a nurse with a responsible job and a devoted commitment to her family. At the hospital where she works, Korede confides in a comatose patient and secretly yearns for Tade, a handsome doctor. Her self-absorbed sister Ayoola is impossibly beautiful and has the habit of ending relationships with murder.

The novel begins with a distress call in which Korede is required to attend to her sister. Ayoola has killed her boyfriend and needs Korede's help to clean up the mess. Korede is calm and methodical, after all this is not the first time she has helped her sister in this way.

Korede is an enabler, refusing to turn her sister in for her crimes, and becoming an accomplice in the aftermath. But when Ayoola meets Tade, Korede is fearful that the pattern will continue and she  must decide where her loyalties lie.

I really enjoyed this novel with its dark comedy and contemporary pop culture references. It is not a crime thriller, rather a noir family drama with morbid undertones. Braithwaite writes in short, sharp chapters, which gives the story momentum and encourages binge reading. I can't wait to see what she writes next.

My Sister, the Serial Killer was shortlisted for the Women's Prize.