Book Review: The Tattooist of Auschwitz

I’m a writer of fiction, I make stuff up and my work is almost all in the mystery/crime genre. It attempts to shine a light on some elements of the darker side of life, but in truth my imagination ain’t got nothing on reality.

Last week I listened to the audiobook of The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. If I was to use two words to describe this novel they would be harrowing and hopeful. The Tattooist of Auschwitz is the story of Slovakian Jew Lale Sokolov. Lale was imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942 and became the Tätowierer – the man who tattooed identification numbers on the arms of incoming prisoners. Lale met a young woman called Gita Furman in the camp and the two fell in love. Both survived three years in the concentration camp, partly due to Lale using his privileged position to smuggle additional rations to other prisoners. After the war Lale and Gita moved to Melbourne, where Lale met Morris who was to write his story. When the two discussed the project and Morris confessed she wasn’t Jewish, Lale indicated he thought this was good – he didn’t want anyone else’s baggage to cloud his personal story.

The book received much acclaim and become a best seller, but also received its fare share of criticism. Despite the novel never claiming to be anything other than historical fiction based on Lale’s memories, historians have criticised some details of the work as containing errors, exaggerations and misrepresentations.

Memory is a complicated thing, a relative to truth, but not its twin. – Barbara Kingslover

Interestingly one of the things most criticised was that Gita’s tattooed number in the book is wrong. Lale was 87 when he and Morris began working together, and Gita had already died. Gita had the tattoo removed when she was in her sixties, so presumably if incorrect, the number was incorrectly remembered by Lale.

The controversy around the work raises some interesting reflections about memory and truth. The story is Lale’s, his memory, recollections of his life as reflected on his twighlight years, some seventy years after the events. Perhaps his mis-remembering the number simply reflected his reclamation of his and Gita’s identities as being much more than a tattooed number. Morris committed to tell his story as he tod it, it’s why he trusted her and chose her for the task. She honoured that trust by telling his story as he relayed it, using fiction to fill in the gaps. If Morris had disregarded some of Lale’s most pressing memories in favour of hard historical facts, the novel may have been a more accurate historical account, but would it have been dishonouring Lale’s memories and his story? Lale has passed away, so we cannot ask him how he might have felt about this.

The debate about the value of the work as a resource to understand the history of Auschwitz is interesting and perhaps the incredibly sensitive nature of the Holocaust lends itself to significant scrutiny. I have read some of the criticism including one stating ‘that the novel is “an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document”. It is a sentiment that I must disagree with. Having read the novel, and the criticism, I do not believe the details raised would have significantly changed my experience of the story. I listened to much of it whilst pottering around in the garden and it bought me both to tears and laughter at times. It also significantly increased my very limited knowledge of that period in history – the fictional I Am David by Anne Holm, Viktor Frankel’s Man’s Search for Meaning and Thomas Kenneally’s Schindler’s List being the only other books I’ve read on the subject. It’s knowledge I probably would not have otherwise gained as I would not have been motivated to read an academic paper about it.

The novel may be a blend of an ageing man’s memories, fiction and facts, but it has never claimed to be more than that and should not be devalued on that basis. I found the The Tattooist of Auschwitz to be a moving and well written story and encourage you to read it if you have not already.

Book review: The Nancys

Tippy Chan’s mum goes on holidays and her Uncle Pike and his boyfriend come to Riverstone, the small town in New Zealand where she lives, to look after her. When Tippy’s friend has an accident and her school teacher is murdered, the three bond over a common love of Nancy Drew and set out to investigate. Uncle Pike’s boyfriend Devon is a clothes designer and runs out a series of prototype matching Nancys T-shirt’s for them to try. The novel has subplots on grief and fashion and is brimming with quirky characters.The Nancys is a light, fun, queer romp told through the eyes of an eleven year old.

Uncle Pike’s plane was late and, and my hair was a sweaty mess thanks to the crimson anti-kidnapping jacket and hateful Santa hat mum had made me wear.

The Nancys is RWR McDonald’s debut novel and it was highly commended for an Unpublished Manuscript in the 2017 Victorian Premier Literary Awards. It’s unusual to find adult fiction told from an adolescent point of view and McDonald does an excellent job creating the voice of Tippy who narrates the story in first person point of view.

To create a convincing young voice, writers need to describe life from a developmentally appropriate context and keep their adult knowledge and experience from intruding. The mind of a teenager moves quickly from one idea to another and leaves little room for reflection. Adolescents can make perceptive observations untainted by extended life knowledge and they experience the world with literal immediacy. Tippy’s adolescent understanding of adult concepts and informal diction makes the narrative jump around in the way young people do and ads to the authenticity of the character. Random observations and snippets of thought to give the narrative a slightly jolty feel and insight into the randomness of Tippy’s inner life. There’s also a good dose of youthful humour and fun subplots.

The next morning Uncle Pike gave me a choice, I didn’t have to go to school if I didn’t want to. It was a no-brainer. Finally I was living the Nancy Drew life-with a mystery to solve and no annoying classes to get in my way. After breakfast Devon made us go to the driveway for a runway show. He modelled a new tight Nancys T-shirt. ‘Tada!’

The novel doesn’t roll at your traditionally fast crime fiction pace – it starts quite slowly and picks up pace as the story unfolds driving you to race through the final chapters. It’s small town expose, family saga and detective story wrapped up in a blend of teen and gay laugh out loud, slightly bawdy humour and is filled with the genuine warmth the characters have for one another.

The author was also interviewed on The First Time Podcast last week if you are interested to hear him talk about his book.

Book Review: Godsgrave by Jay Christoff

If Vengeance has a mother, her name is Patience.

I picked up Kristoff’s epic fantasy novel after hearing him interviewed on The Garrett podcast. I don’t read a lot of fantasy, but he seemed like an interesting guy. Godsgrave is the second in a chronicle and it’s fare to say after reading it I wish I’d started with book one.

Our scars are just gifts from our enemies…reminding us they weren’t good enough to kill us.

Mia Corvere wants revenge for the murder of her familia, and she’s ruthless. She orchestrates herself to be sold off as a slave to a gladiatorial collegium. But it’s a tough and bloody road to revenge in Nevernight. Mia encounters allies, rivals and lovers all the way egged on by her mysterious magical shadows. Kristoff puts Mia under more and more pressure as the story unfolds and forces her to choose between pursuing revenge or friendships.

The old man hooked his thumbs into his waistcoat. ‘Problem with being a librarian is there’s some lessons you just can’t learn from books. And the problem with being an assassin is there’s some mysteries you just can’t solve by stabbing the fuck out of them.

The book is a long, dark, blood soaked, sexy, action packed page turner with plenty of twists to keep you on your toes. The world building is grand, the action spectacular, the narrator playful and amusing (if you read the footnotes), and the writing style poetically gruesome. And it ends on a cliffhanger.

Because the voices in your head that say otherwise are just fear talking. Never listen to fear.

Book Review: This House of Grief by Helen Garner

I don’t read a lot of true crime but just finished Helen Garner’s work, This House of Grief. I know some people find the genre too hard because of the voyeuristic nature of it, or because they cannot bear to hear about the terrible things people are capable of doing to one another. The genre is often criticised for being disrespectful to victims and their families, an argument that primarily revolves around issues of consent, appropriation, representation and concerns when stories are embellished for the purposes of drama.

Those who do like true crime reference its value in providing insight into, and an understanding of, the inner workings of the legal system and human behaviour. There have been instances of true crime pieces shining a light on forgotten cases and having an extraordinary impact, such as facilitating the resolution of unsolved crimes or the reopening of cold case investigations. Rachael Brown’s, Trace, a true crime podcast series about the cold case of the murder of single mother Maria James at the back of her bookshop in 1980 resulted in a new coronial investigation. Katherine Kovacic’s historical fiction novel, The Portrait of Molly Dean, based on a 1930 unsolved murder delivers a sensitive remembrance for a largely unknown young woman who’s life might otherwise have been forgotten.

This House of Grief by Helen Garner is a non fiction true crime story about the murder trial of Robert Farquharson. Farquharson was charged after the car he was driving left the road and crashed into a dam outside of Winchelsea, Victoria and resulted in the death of his three children on Father’s Day. Farquharson was convicted to three terms of life imprisonment without parole in 2007. The original conviction was overturned in 2009 but a retrial again found him guilty of murder and he was sentenced to life imprisonment with a 33 year minimum.

Garner never interviewed Farquharson but did attend both trials as part of her process of writing the book. The trial and re-trial form the narrative spine of the novel in which Garner herself is both a witness to events, and a character within the text. The story blends Garner’s personal experience of the harrowing trial with the procedural formality of the legal system. Her her own emotional responses to the unfolding evidence, and the mundanities of her everyday life run along side the factual reporting of the trials. It is written with the calm eloquent voice of an observer equipped with the exceptional skills of a fiction author and a fearless honesty. Garner strives for an empathic understanding of the terrible event as the rational, ordered legal system tries to make sense of it and find the truth at the centre of all the swirling grief. She lays her own and others emotions, prejudices, and preconceived notions of human behaviour bare, challenging their intractable nature and unreliability on the page.

As Garner records and critiques the courtroom drama and her own conflicting responses to it, she describes in expressive detail impressions of the people she encounters in appearance, language and tone, the mood of the room, the surreptitious glances and subtle shifts in body language. When the evidence leans toward a guilty verdict Garner clings to the possibility of reasonable doubt because she doesn’t want to believe a father could be capable of intentionally killing his three children. When rebuked by a barrister friend, she reflects on the question of why lawyers always make her feel stupid. It seems to be a comment on gendered views where the legal system is masculine and certain, but she is feminine and tentative.

Garner has received both praised and criticism for this work and other true crime books she has written (Joe Cinque’s Consolation; The First Stone). I found This House of Grief a fascinated and compellingly intimate insight into Garners inner world. In striving to be objective she had to wade through confusion, doubt and sudden flights of compassion or repulsion she felt for the subjects of her study, and her own responses to those feeling.

Ultimately This House of Grief raised more questions for me than it answered – about the fallibility of the legal system and the ambiguity in taking a highly technical procedural process and asking ordinary emotion laden laypeople to make a judgement of certainty about what they hear; about our societies insistence on imposing gender stereotypes that sometimes turn out men so incapable of managing their own emotional turmoil they carry out terrible acts in some misconceived belief it will soothe their own pain; about women unable to reconcile the possibility that love and vengeance can coexist in a way that can make the ones they love capable of both great heroism and of terrible violence; about how our own social conditioning, past experiences and emotional worlds shape how we perceive and interpret what goes on around us; and how our individual prejudices and beliefs shape what we can and cannot bear to hear and believe about the world.

Book Review: Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton

Trent Dalton’s novel Boy Swallows Universe is part crime novel, part coming of age story and part memoir. Eli Bell is a boy growing up in commission housing on the outskirts of Brisbane in the 1980’s with his brother August who doesn’t speak. It follows Eli from age twelve through nineteen when he realises his boyhood dream and becomes a journalist. As a child he gets life advice from his babysitter and mentor Slim who is a convicted murderer, and he lives with his heroin addicted mother and violent, drug dealing step father – until his stepfather disappears when his criminal past overtakes him, his mother goes to jail and Eli loses his lucky charm.

Eli and August then go to live with their father, an anxious, alcoholic man who is a prolific reader of fiction and buys Eli writing paper to ‘burn the house down or set the world on fire.’ And Dalton certainly set the world on fire with this novel.

The book has won more awards than you can poke a stick at including four ABIAs: Book of the Year, Literary Book of the Year, the Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year and Audio Book of the Year (Wavesound, narrated by Stig Wemyss); the UTS Glenda Adams Award for New Writing and Peoples Choice Award at the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards; the Indie Book Awards Book of the Year; and the MUD Literary Prize. Oh, and it’s going to be adapted for screen.

It’s a long work at 480 pages, but every one is packed full of humour, tragedy, hope, love and a splash of magical realism, all written in Dalton’s unique lyrical prose. It gets the one of my favourite ever books award because it’s a rollicking good read and I loved his writing style. I expect I will read it more than once.

Watch my language? Watch my language? This is what really shits me, when the clandestine heroin operation truth meets the Von Trapp family values mirage we’ve built for ourselves.”

Trent Dalton, Boy Swallows Univers

Book Review: The Shut Eye by Belinda Bauer

Anna can’t bring herself to end it. Instead she spirals toward insanity while she sits on the pavement outside her house and polishes five tiny footprints embedded in the cement, protecting them from passers-by. Her son Daniel disappeared and the footprints are all she has left.

DCI Marvel is a curmudgeonly detective who hates most people but has a uncharacteristic empathy for the missing and murdered. His mood takes a turn for the worse when he’s assigned to look for his bosses wife’s lost dog.

Anna and Marvel meet when Anna is trying to throw herself off a bridge. When Anna goes to a psychic for help to find Daniel, she meets the owner of the missing dog and decides to help the cynical Marvel find it. Then things take a strange turn.

English crime writer Belinda Bauer brings her characters to life by exposing quirky details about the absurdities of life and then weaving them with human tragedy. She has a knack of making the almost unbelievable plausible and times you’re not sure whether to laugh or cry. Her prose flows in a way that is easy to digest and draws the reader into the characters.

The first Bauer novel I read was Snap, short listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2018. Snap was a page turner that surprised and delighted with its offbeat, idiosyncratic characters and made me an immediate fan. I must admit I wondered if I would enjoy her earlier novels as much given I seemed to have started with the best. I’m pleased to say The Shut Eye did not disappoint and I’ll be delving into more of her work in the future.

Book review: Eden by Candice Fox

Reading Candice Fox’s novel Hades (reviewed in last weeks blog) set me off on a binge and I followed it straight up with the sequel Eden which won the 2015 Ned Kelly Award for best crime novel. Like it’s predecessor, Eden has several narratives running through it.

We are thrown back to discover how Hades, who bought up Eden and her brother came to be the man he became, the go-to body disposal guy who runs the tip, makes elaborate sculptures from discarded metal and causes many a grown man to tremble in their boots with fear, yet has a heart capable of great love.

Frank the cop who has fallen into a pit of drunken despair after the death of his lover, the death of a colleague and almost dying himself, is forced out of his misery by his work partner, the mysterious and dangerous Eden who loves hunting criminals but doesn’t always wait for the justice system to determine their sentence. She wants Frank back on his feet as they are to be assigned to a murder investigation that will require her to go undercover. She wants him to watch her back on surveillance and Frank can’t say no to her because she knows his dark secret.

As Frank gets drawn into Hades world, helping him solve a long ago mystery an unexpected twist nearly gets Eden killed. Dark, gritty, noirish and poetic, another great read.

Book Review: Good Samaritans by Will Carver

It takes six bottles of bleach to clean a dead body.

Gallery of Modern Art, Brisbane

A lonely insomniac in a dysfunctional marriage with a wine guzzling wife who compulsively watches crap TV seeks late night comfort in the sympathetic ear of strangers plucked from the phone book at random.

A promiscuous misunderstood woman with several failed relationships and suicide attempts finally meets someone who accepts her for who she is, listens and understands her.

A man traumatised by the suicide of his childhood friend who he found hanging on the back of a door whilst they were traveling overseas together tries to assuage his guilt by dedicating his life to saving others and developing a few obsessive compulsive behaviours.

The character’s flaws are exposed like festering wounds via the short chapters which build suspense and unveil plot twists at every turn switching from one characters bizarre view of the world to another.

The Bridge, Adelaide

The unlikable characters trudge through life in dysfunctional relationships rife with unhealthy sexual practices and violence while they grapple with dark thoughts and obsessions bought to light via crossed wires. Dark, sick, twisted, quirky contemporary domestic noir set in a dull suburban backdrop.

Thrillers are meant to suck you in, elevate your heart rate and totally freak you out. Will Carver does all these things with Good Samaritans. I could not put it down despite being disturbed and disgusted by the tortured souls and their cat and mouse antics. Even the contrary title made me cringe.