Buzz: I keep hearing about this book on social media. Lale's real life story has also been covered by the BBC and The Guardian.
I’m not sure you can ever read too many real-life perspectives of Auschwitz. I can imagine being sucked in; trying to absorb more and more, jigsaw together a picture from the infinite, varied, individual experiences. Like the need to pick up every single audio telephone in the Imperial War Museum’s Holocaust exhibition, (which is entirely worth doing.) For this reason alone, this book is unmissable.
It’s a readable, sensitive, morally complicated and engrossing story. Lale Sokolov volunteers to go to Auschwitz, in the hope of saving his family. He is naturally optimistic and determined to survive, any way he can, and secures himself the job of Tetovierer, or Tattooist. It is a (relatively) privileged position and allows him extra rations, a room of his own and a certain level of protection. He constantly shares his small bounty with other inmates, but the most heart-breaking aspect of the novel is the sense of how he questions himself and his actions. As if he is anything other than a victim. As if there were other choices he could have made.
But despite the fascination, and inherent emotional power, of the subject matter; this is still a novel, and a love story. And, for me, the love story was oddly uncompelling. If Lale’s real-life perspective offers another crucial jigsaw piece of the Holocaust story, something from the final picture is still missing.Lale falls for a fellow inmate, Gita, and the plot follows their story. But Gita as a character doesn’t feel very filled out. I still don’t know what it was about her that he loved. It’s Lale himself that shines through the pages and that creates a slight tension -- as though Lale wanted to tell Gita’s story, but the author just wanted to tell his.
Strangely, I got more of a sense of Gita from the ‘Author’s Note’ at the end, than from the pages preceding it. In fact, the ‘note’ is where the tears in this book are most likely to come. I’m not sure if this is a success of the book, that we’re so invested in the lives described that the extra details are so moving; or a failure of the book, that the real power and interest lies in the bits the author decided to leave out. Perhaps it’s best to judge this novel on its own merits, and then hope there’ll be a sequel.
Published: 11th January, Bonnier Zaffre.