Category Archives: Historical Fiction

The Tattooist of Auschwitz – Heather Morris

Hey Everyone!!

Happy April! I can’t believe we have reached this point in the year. January seems to be a distant memory. However, over this Easter holiday I have achieved one thing: to read plenty. I’ve chosen to review The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris. This book completely took hold of me. I’d read it over two days. I couldn’t not read it. I was desperate to know what happened. However, it sounds so ridiculous but I was so scared to read it because I was terrified as to what the outcome was going to be. Prepare to be on the edge of your seat.

 

What’s it all about?

The novel focuses on telling the true story of Lale Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew who spent three years in Auschwitz. However, it isn’t like the other Holocaust novels. This novel focuses on love, hope and survival. The amazing Heather Morris spent time with Lale gathering experiences to create this book. Boy, what an absolute treasure it is.

Lale knew exactly what was in store for him on that fateful day he was taken to Auschwitz. Luckily Lale landed a job as a tattooist, a job that gave him a slither of protection. Whilst doing this job, he meets a range of different people; one in particular catching his eye and changing his world forever.

‘Her eyes, however, dance before him. Looking into them his heart seems simultaneously to stop and begin beating for the first time, pounding, almost threatening to burst out of his chest.’

We see Lale travel to Auschwitz in a cattle cart with numerous people around him. You can imagine the sight, the smells and the sense of fear through the description. On his arrival to the camp he is stripped, searched and put into the striped uniform. During the cold, harsh nights, Lale sees people being shot for needing the toilet, one of whom is a child. It is at this moment that Lale makes a decision.

‘As they disappear into the darkness, Lale makes a vow to himself. I will leave this place. I will walk out a free man.’

 

There was a moment when my heart was in my mouth and I thought Lale wouldn’t make it. Actually, there were more than one. The first was when Lale got Typhus. As many historical accounts say, the sick were merely cast aside or shot. They were of no use as they couldn’t work. But in a tale of true heroism, many people saved him; the majority nameless. Pepan, a Tattooist, continues to look after him whenever he can along with those from Block 7.

“A young man was pleading with the SS to leave you, saying that he would take care of you. When they went into the next block he pushed you off the cart and started dragging you back inside.”

Not only did Pepan help save his life, he offered another lifeline: a job. Lale becomes a Tattooist with him. He can speak many languages which appeals to the officers. Yet tattooing causes a moral problem for Lale. He doesn’t wish to inflict harm on any other human being but he wants to survive. More than that, he wants to help others. Pepan reminds him of what an opportunity this is.

“I saw a half-starved young man risk his life to save you. I figure you must be someone worth saving.”

One huge reason why Lale survives is arguably because of Gita. With the help of an officer he finds which block she is in. This is the beginning of something beautiful after all. Despite the despair and daily horrors around him and many others in that situation, he tries to be friendly to everyone. He strikes a deal with Victor and Yuri who are working on the roof. They smuggle him food which he saves and passes around his friends. He asks the girls to keep looking for jewels so he can use them to repay the kindness of Victor. Of course, if any of them were caught, they’d be killed.

‘Victor closes his hand over Lale’s in a handshake, palming the jewels. Lale’s bag is already open and Victor quickly transfers some packages into it. Their alliance is now sealed.’

One of the most remarkable thing about this novel is the notion of hope. Lale is always hopeful about leaving; something he passes onto those he meets, especially Gita. Lale is completely in love with her. He goes out of his way to see her, strikes up a deal with officers in which chocolate plays a key role and they have beautiful, blissful moments together.

“There will be a tomorrow for us…We will survive and make a new life where we are free to kiss where we want to…”

Things take a turn for the worst when Lale’s stash is discovered. Rather fortunately (because once again my heart was in my mouth) Lale’s earlier kindness keeps him alive. Nevertheless, it doesn’t stop him getting a severe beating. Everyone must do what needs to be done to survive in a place like that. This is just another example of that.

“You were kind to me and I will make the beating look worse than it is, but I will kill you before I let you tell me a name.”

The monotony of daily life at the camp is broken up. There is a sense of urgency as we proceed through the novel. It’s not just survival, it is a change in the atmosphere. Clearly something is happening to make the camp a hive of activity. People are coming to save them. It is at this point I probably felt most uncomfortable. Will they ever see each other again? Who will survive? What happens next? I was reading this and only noticed at the end just how tightly I was holding onto the book.

‘Whatever happens tomorrow will happen to all of them – together they will live or die.’

As they are all separated, the narrative almost splits. We see the girls taken away with many falling at the sides. We see Lale end up in a new role – providing nice girls for the soldiers, a role in which he is possibly even less comfortable than before. He pockets some jewels and finally decides to get freedom: a train to Bratislava. The whole time his thoughts are consumed with Gita. It takes two weeks but amazingly, thanks to the Red Cross, he finds her.

‘Then, with Gita’s arms around Lale’s waist and her head resting on his shoulder, they walk away, merging into the crowded street, one young couple among many in a war-ravaged city.’

Overview

It has been a long time since I’ve hung onto every word written in a book. I have probably never felt so much hope either. I bought and read this book with great trepidation. I find these events so utterly horrific and yet even though these were in the book, the overwhelming feeling is of hope. It is a remarkable story in every sense. Right until Gita’s death, Lale wanted to protect her, hence why the book wasn’t even written let alone published. Lale is a truly magnificent person and Heather Morris has done an amazing job in telling his story. Read this book; it will change your life.

Big love xx

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Filed under Book review, Historical Fiction

Charlecote Park – The National Trust

Morning everyone, wherever you are! 

As you may know, I am a lover of Victorian novels, and my love for all things Victorian meant that I was incredibly excited to visit Charlecote Park yesterday. It’s not too far from me, being near Wellsbourne, Stratford upon Avon. 

It’s a grand, elegant and beautiful Victorian house, belonging to the Lucy family for over 900 years. You may remember I mentioned Mary Elizabeth Lucy’s memoirs in a recent post. It was really special to experience her house, influenced by their many travels abroad, and their beautiful grounds with her book in the back of my mind. 

  
Within the house, we can only see the central part because the family still live here. The paintings were bold and proud, the wallpaper still in its original form in a number of the rooms dating back to the 1830s. 

  
For me, the library is impressive. It boasts of views across the River Avon, books all around, a comfortable fireplace for winter, and inviting seating. I could have happily moved in. Once more, it is easy to imagine the family reading together, and Mary writing her memoirs here for her grandchildren. 

    

As I’ve mentioned already, the grounds really were spectacular. Deer and sheep roam freely, and it is really quite beautiful and tranquil to see. It’s easy to see how inspiring this place is. 

   
 
One little anecdote that does make me smile from Charlecote, is it’s link to William Shakespeare. It is believed that a young Shakespeare was caught poaching deer from here and was sent to Magistrates court. In his ‘revenge’ it is also believed that in The Merry Wives of Windsor, where the Lucy coat of arms, as well as a poaching incident are referenced, that the character of Justice Shallow is based on Sir Thomas Lucy. Naughty Shakespeare! 

  

There’s also a brilliant bookshop here – I picked up a bag full. Before I spoil it for you, make sure you visit yourself. It really is breathtaking. 

To find out more visit:

http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/charlecote-park/ 

BL x

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Filed under Days Out, Historical Fiction, National Trust, Photography, Stratford upon Avon, UK, Victorian Lit

The Clothes On Their Backs – Linda Grant

  
Morning all!

Today, I’m going to review The Clothes on Their Backs. The Clothes on Their Backs was a really interesting, if not predictable novel. I’ve read a Linda Grant novel before, We Had It So Good, but I really did not enjoy it. I found it a bit flat. Therefore, I went into reading this novel with little expectations. I was surprised! The plot was seamlessly fluid. The themes are not lightweight, but the artful crafting of language makes it feel like you are breezing through the plot. The themes are as relevant today as they were when this novel was originally published in 2008, they tend to stay with you after you’ve read the novel. 

The novel centres around Vivien Kovaks. She comes from a family of Jewish-Hungairian immigrants who arrived in 1938. They are relieved and grateful to England for giving them refuge. Vivien is the niece of Sandor Kovacs. He is presented as a deeply layered character throughout the novel. He is a rent baron, who made his fortune from the new London Afro-Caribbean immigrants in the 50s and 60s. The houses were a disgrace and incredibly small. Violence was used to remove tenants that were deemed unprofitable. Grant notes that this character was inspired by Peter Rachman. 

Sandor is a distant figure in Vivien’s childhood. Her father, Ervin, alludes to a past history where her uncle is a bad character and influence. At this time, it is still secret. Vivien has a vivid memory of Sandor and his girlfriend at the time appearing at the door of the family’s London apartment. She was 10 years old. The visit from her uncle threatens to disrupt their new peaceful lives in England. Sandor had bought a Toblerone for his niece, which her father forbade Vivien to have. Instead, she saw the girlfriend eat it as they walked away. 

‘He opened the gilt clasp of the girl’s crocodile bag and pulled out a bar of Toblerone the size and weight of a hammer.’

Ervin is adamant that nothing good will come out of his brother, and rather predictably (Ervin’s opinion), 8 months later, Sandor is sent to prison in a blaze of newspaper headlines. It is here that Ervin decides to change one letter of their last name, in order to break away any links between himself and Sandor. Vivien, like any curious 10 year old, is fascinated by the colourful character she saw for a split second at the door. The men parallel each other. Ervin is repeatedly seen hiding behind the door, scared of everything, whereas Sandor is presented as open, honest with nothing to hide. 

“Don’t ask questions. No one ever had a quiet life by asking questions, and a life that isn’t peaceful is no life at all.” 

Whilst Sandor is in prison, Vivien’s life takes a dramatic and tragic turn. Her husband dies in a freak accident days into their honeymoon. She returns home to her parents where it seems she is destined to live her previous life. However, a chance encounter with Sandor in a park saves her. It’s obvious that they know each other’s identities, but Vivien and Sandor act as if they are really strangers. Vivien gives him a false name, Miranda, as she is employed as his secretary. Sandor is writing his memoirs and needs her to take notes. The story she is given appears to be the story she’s been searching for all her life: her history. Questions regarding her parents, her uncle, where they came from and why. 

‘There were several moments in this conversation when I could have told my uncle who I was, and there were times too, I later understood, when he could have revealed himself to me too, for her recognised me at once, and not because he had a good memory, but because my father had gloatingly gone to see him in prison…’

Here the plot splits into Sandor’s relevations regarding his life, and Vivien’s intimate relations with Claude, one of Sandor’s tenants. Initially skeptical of what she is being told, she does come to empathise with her uncle. Someone is bound to make a profit out of a bad situation, what’s the harm if it’s you? In the background of the plot, contextually, the rise of the National Front in the 1970s is gaining momentum, and there is a feeling of increasing racial tension within London. Sandor worries about his girlfriend, Eunice. Vivien hands out leaflets for the Anti-Nazi League. There is a growing feeling of unease that this is all going to explode. Of course, it does when Sandor throws Vivien a 25th birthday party. It’s lavish and beautiful and results in the two admitting who they are, partly because Vivien’s parents attend. 

Throughout that summer, my parents’ fear and paranoia had been growing, until their anxiety burst out on to the surface and what had been a dream existence, a pleasant half-life, suddenly seemed to them like a walking nightmare.’ 

The party, overall, was a success, despite her father insulting Eunice. Despite this, Vivien felt unable to return home, so her uncle gave her a flat for free and she continued to make notes on her uncle’s memoirs. She also spends a lot of time reading and being with Claude. Sandor and Eunice plan their wedding and move in together. Sandor is more and more concerned about the types of people in the area where Eunice lives and is desperate for her to move in with him. 

“A different class of person lives over there… And not a nice class.” 

Vivien and Claude’s sexual relationship comes to an end, as they argue about Viven’s abortion. Knowing that violence would be the answer, she remained vague regarding the details to her uncle. Nevertheless, Vivien walks in on her uncle, Claude, blood and a knife. Knowing the police would send Sandor back to prison, only an ambulance was ordered. Vivien makes the call, and the police come. It was the end of Sandor. 

‘My uncle was in a cell and as soon as I saw him, I knew he was finished. I could tell that he would not survive and he didn’t.’ 

The novel ends with Vivien back in her parents flat listening to the tapes of her uncle. She gives them to Eunice, who still defends her love Sandor. The circular narration of the plot means the novel ends with Vivien and Eunice, some years later, just as the novel started. We as a reader have been on a whole journey of Viven’s life throughout the space of just under 300 pages. Eunice persuades Vivien to buy a red dress in order to reinvent herself. Clothes in this novel act as a means to show how they make you feel. They are the disguise we can take on and off or discarded if we no longer want them. We can’t trust that Vivien really knows who she is, despite the events within the novel. 

‘Whether they are true or false (and I have no cause to doubt them), this past is the only one I’ve got, there is no other available.’ 

I really enjoyed this novel. It’s not overly political, it doesn’t punch you in the face, but it leaves you questioning the hypocrisy of it all. Is it predictable? Potentially. However, the novel is successful at presenting a female view of this period of time. The growing unease nationally matches the growing unease felt by Ervin. There is a reason why this novel was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and why it won an Orange prize. Definitely worth a read. 

BL xx

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The Colour of Milk – Nell Leyshon

   

I first heard about this gem of a book when Penguin emailed me with a list of their latest top picks. Something appealed to me, I’m not quite sure what, but there was something about it. So I purchased it straight away. I wasn’t disappointed! In fact, I was gripped from start to finish.

‘this is my book and i am writing it by my own hand.’ There is a distinct lack of punctuation and capital letters. The teacher in me dispairs at this, but it is crucial to the development and the consequences of this novel. It shows throughout the novel the importance of literacy and of learning to the protagonist, Mary. 

The book is divided into 4 sections to represent the seasons in one year. Each section starts with the above quote. She repeats in her first person narration the fact that this is her own story and that her hair is the colour of milk. 

The novel opens in 1830. Mary is a teenager of indeterminate age, born with a dodgy leg and has the ability to offend with her back talking mouth. Her family: mother, father and three sisters have no use for her beyond the hard work in the fields. Work is a reoccurring image in this book. It never seems to end. In fact, Mary is not allowed to sit down during the day unless she was milking the cows. Life is hardworking and always demanding out in the fields. 

The one source of kindness in her life is from her grandfather. He is a cripple as his legs were crushed; making him a permanent invalid. Her father is a man who regularly has violent tempers and beats his wife and children. Mary has spent her life observing the natural world, thus giving her native intelligence (very important for the closing of the novel.) But, she is completely uneducated and illiterate. As a result of this, she knows exactly what is happening one night when she wanders into the barnyard and sees one of her sisters getting intimate with the vicar’s son, but she has no idea what the consequences would be. 

Change comes to shake up Mary’s life and Mary is sent away by her father to work for the vicar. Mary will work for the vicar, caring for his sick wife, and he will pay her father, essentially selling her to slavery. She regularly gets into trouble and pines for home, but life isn’t so bad there. She is treated with kindness and the vicar’s wife cares much about her. Yet there is a feeling of inevitability. The wife is ill, so how long will the kindness last? 

The historical element of this novel is well developed and fairly apt. Being set in 1830/1831, historically, women were dictated to by the men in their lives. As the fourth daughter to an impoverished and illiterate farmer in the west of England, the author places Mary in a long line of literary heroines who are not only at the mercy of the men in their lives, but the victims of the men’s perversity. The very people who should have protected her most, her father and the vicar, are the ones who abuse their position repeatedly. The heartbreak doesn’t end there. 

The vicar’s wife dies, the household servant is dismissed and Mary moves to a new position within the house. She becomes a student as the vicar teaches her to read using the Holy Bible. Mary is obsessed with learning more and the vicar is hooked on Mary. He starts to using her and sneaking into her room at night claiming loneliness as his excuse and right to rape her, in exchange for teaching her reading and writing. 

However, Mary decides she’s learned enough from the vicar and puts up resistance. The vicar turns nasty and fails to understand. He continues to force her and becomes more violent. One skill that Mary has, which ultimately gives her the upper hand, as a farm girl she has killed many animals. The cheese wire in her pocket is her way out. The last time he rapes her, she has her cheese wire. Yet she never really expects to use it. But she has to, to save herself. 

‘and so i shall finish this very last sentence and i will blot my words where the ink gathers in the pools at the end of each letter. and then i shall be free.’

The novel starts with this naivety, this simple hard working farming life. But there is always a feeling that something bad will happen. And boy does it. 

Big love x

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Filed under Book review, Historical Fiction