Category Archives: Biographical Fiction

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The question is: How accurate does an author have to be when writing an historical novel? If it’s fiction shouldn’t they be allowed to take some poetic license, otherwise the book would be more in the nonfiction realm. Well then, do certain topics require a heavier touch? Perhaps books covering more recent history need to be a little more accurate than most so as not to offend those who have lived through those events. (The Cellist from the novel The Cellist of Sarajevo had some harsh works for the author Steve Galloway for adding his own twist to this real life occurrence). What about The Holocaust? While the survivors are quickly reaching the end of their lives, places such as the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum maintain vast records documenting the details surrounding the Nazi concentration camps. They are obsessed about the truth and find offense in inaccuracies which they fear will be fodder for those who believe the Holocaust was a hoax.
Heather Morris had the opportunity to meet Lali Sokolov, a Slovakian Jew, who while imprisoned at Auschwitz in 1942 was forced to tattoo numbers onto the arms of thousands of incoming prisoners. At the age of 87, Lali was looking for someone to record his story and what an incredible tale he had to tell. Over a period of three years Morris met with the Holocaust survivor taking extensive notes. After his death in 2006, she created a screen play based on her interviews, but she eventually revised her efforts and published a fiction novel entitled The Tattooist of Auschwitz, changing a few of the details to dramatize the story. Based on this publication, Lali’s story is in the process of becoming a miniseries (although written by Jacquelin Perske and not Morris) with an air date sometime in January 2020 to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
Auschwitz (consisting of Auschwitz and its sub-camps, Birkenau and Monowitz) was the only death camp where the prisoners were tattooed, using a series of numbers and sometimes letters to identify not just the captive but the circumstances which led them to be imprisoned. The Tattooist of Auschwitz centers on the charismatic and plucky Lale whose adeptness at five + languages resulted in the “privilege” of being selected as the concentration camp tattooist with all the “perks” which accompanied that position. With sleeping and eating arrangements far superior to those of the other captives, Lale had a better chance of survival. However, by “cooperating” with the enemy, even if under the threat of death for disobeying orders, he feared retribution from the other inhabitants of the camp whose situations were so much more untenable. The reality was that his loyalties remained with his “friends” and he regularly slipped extra rations to those in need. Through ingenuity, chutzpah, and luck, Lale found a way to acquire and distribute contraband allowing some relief from the constant hunger endured by the prisoners. Ultimately this book takes a romantic turn when Lale meets the love of his life, Gita, inspiring a determination that the two of them would survive this ordeal despite the numerous obstacles which stood in the way of them achieving this seemingly impossible dream.
So what is the uproar about the lack of authenticity all about?  Morris, living in Australia, made the mistake of claiming this book was thoroughly researched and 95% accurate, a claim she had to walk back when some glaring recognizable errors as well as a host of logistical inaccuracies were revealed. This raised the hackles of The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum who felt that since the book was based on an actual survivor of the holocaust, the author had a greater responsibility when presenting this story to the world.
Morris responded that she would leave the facts to the historians and the  museum decided to treat the novel as “an impression about Auschwitz inspired by authentic events, almost without any value as a document”,  which is just fine for the majority of readers who responded positively to this book. Of interest is the comment made by Heather Morris stating that Lali applauded the idea that she was not Jewish, wanting someone with a clean slate to portray his traumatic tale, an opportunity she used to create her debut novel.
While I was annoyed at some of the bigger gaffs (such as Lale obtaining the unavailable penicillin on the black market to treat Typhus when PABA was the accepted treatment at the time), it was the actual writing style which disappointed me. I also felt there should have been more depth in the characterizations and that certain events could have been more fully explored in the plot line. Written in the present tense, this novel reflects the fact that the original intent was to present a screenplay, not a book. Which is not to say that this story isn’t worth reading, it’s just that I expected more.
Three and a half stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Bonner Publishjng Australia for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Victoria by Daisy Goodwin

The question isn’t whether the teenage Queen Victoria had a crush on her elderly Private Secretary, the question remains about what sort of feelings Lord Melbourne had towards Her Majesty.

Daisy Goodwin in both her book and PBS miniseries Victoria extensively used Queen Victoria’s diaries to weave her tale of Alexandrina Victoria’s ascension to the throne. Unfortunately, although Victoria kept all encompassing diaries about not just her actions, but her thoughts and attitudes towards life, her youngest daughter Beatrice edited these reflections (at her mother’s request), copying them over and burning the originals. Thus it is only the redacted words which were left behind. Still, Goodwin was able to glean that Victoria definitely had more than just daughterly feelings towards the 58 year old Prime Minister. The gallant, amiable gentleman did everything he could to please his young mentor, yet despite their closeness, even he at times became the target of her ire.

The novel has Victoria mildly flirting with the man who seems charmed by her youthful exuberance although he keeps his personal feelings private knowing it would be inappropriate for him to have a romantic relationship with the young Queen. Victoria is drawn to his life of tragic romance when as Charles Lamb his wife Caroline ran off with the salacious author Lord Byron gallivanting throughout London Society causing scandalized tongues to wag. Caroline returned to her husband after being dumped by the “evil” Lord, and proceeded to publish a “fictionalized” novel containing thinly veiled details of her affair. Lamb suffered from these insults but remained by her side as she died of dropsy at the age of 42.

Trouble followed the now Lord Melbourne as his name was romantically linked to another lady and brought to court charged with adultery or as they called it “a criminal conversation”. Despite these scandals, he was able to retain his role as Prime Minister of England and ultimately became the Personal Secretary of a Queen who was fascinated by his lovelorn past.

Victoria monopolizes so much of Melborne’s time that one wonders how he was able to fulfill his role of Prime Minister. Her devotion to the man was revealed when she refused to accept his Tory opponent, Sir Robert Peel, as a replacement when Melbourne attempted to step down (after almost losing a vote on an important measure), forcing Parliament to decline his resignation to keep the government intact.

Goodwin introduces us to life at Buckingham Palace in 1837 where the willful young Queen has temper tantrums, throws things about, and sulks if she doesn’t get her way. Victoria was mean to her mother, obsessed with her hair and wardrobe, and unaware of the needs of those who surrounded her, lacking any sort of empathy for the very people who fulfilled her demands. However, what can one expect of a child kept isolated and under the thumb of a controlling mother (who forced “Drina” to sleep on a cot by her side and did not allow her daughter to walk down the stairs unassisted), brought up under the auspices of a predestined life of royalty.

My favorite scene is when her two cousins are visiting and Ernest strikes up a conversation with Victoria while the others are vigorously eating their meal. To his astonishment, the footman takes away his dinner mid bite. Although he complains he hasn’t finished, the fact is that when the Queen is done eating, everyone is done as well. (And the Queen was infamous for gulping down her food). Of course the reader knows this will happen since this is not the first mention of this tradition within the pages of this book.

While lengthy, the book only deals with the early years of Victoria’s reign up to the point where she asks her handsome cousin Albert to be her husband. (The mini series proceeds a little farther to when her first of nine children are born).

I was slightly disappointed. There was so much fascinating material here to be fictionalized, yet Goodwin kept repeating the same thoughts or ideas through the voices of numerous characters. I appreciated that the author used actually quotes, but at times the dialogue was too staid and as in many historical novels featuring biographical content, the author included too many particulars from the past, although I personally liked the mention of hairstyles and clothing choices as well as the social scenes such as the various balls, dancing, and the trip to Windsor. Perhaps too much attention was paid to some of the specific events which shaped those first few months of her reign. An author needs to pick and choose their focus so we don’t get bogged down in unnecessary minutiae. If I wanted to read a nonfiction book detailing Queen Victoria’s life I would have read Victoria: the Queen: An Intimate Biography of the Woman Who Ruled an Empire by Julia Baird (which I just might do).

Nevertheless, I did enjoy this book and recommend it to others. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley and St Martin’s Press for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.

This review also appears on Goodreads.

Mrs Houdini by Victoria Kelley

My Great Uncle, Harry Klauber and his wife, Jacques Marchais, were friends of the Houdinis and some of the seances which attempted to contact Harry were conducted at the Klauber estate (now torn down) on the borough of Staten Island. Knowing this I have always been curious about this infamous magician and was attracted to a book featuring his wife, Bess.

Victoria Kelley interweaves fact and fiction in her novel, Mrs Houdini. Researching various biographies, some rare and out of print, she was able to reconstruct and even replicate various conversations and events from the past, manipulating them in a way to give substance to her imaginary resolution to Houdini’s promise to communicate with his wife from beyond the grave. Focusing on Bess Rahner, who at eighteen had left home and begun a life entertaining in Coney Island, the young girl meets the mesmerizing Harry, born Ehrich Weiss, and finds herself married and on the Carney Circuit.

Life on the vaudeville road was tough for the young couple, but Bess became an important part of the act, at first acting as her husband’s partner on stage and then managing his career from behind the scenes throughout their 33 year marriage, supporting Harry through the ups and downs of an always uncertain career in show business. Despite his fame, the worldwide travels, and renowned people they met along the way, Harry was a shy man who only opened up when performing. At times he struggled with insecurities, but Bess was there to guide him through the tough patches. Kelley tells the tale through Bess’ point of view, going back and forth between the time after Harry’s death and the prior events of their lives together, from 1894 to 1929. I found this device a little disconcerting and would have preferred a straightforward narrative or at least one with less flashbacks and more chronology. Kelley attempted to showcase a love story while maintaining some integrity regarding the conflicts found in any relationship, but it fell a little flat. At times superficial, we never truly get into her head.

The book was full of descriptions of the various stunts and illusions performed at the numerous locations where the duo traveled plus a listing of the people who surrounded their lives, but it was often stilted, not flowing like a traditional novel. A common problem of authors who try to write fictionalized biographies is that they get bogged down in all the factual details. It would have been a more compelling novel if Kelley had selected various highlights and dwelled more on those, rounding out the facts with her imaginings. For example, one of the compelling events was the Houdini’s trip to Europe where Harry purchased a dress designed for Queen Victoria in London and then invited his mother to her home town of Budapest, holding a party in her honor where she could wear this beautiful gown. Instead of just telling us about this event, Kelly should have involved the reader in every aspect of this delightful tale, making us feel as if we were there. There was just too much telling with more than a bit of repetition. Yet, I found the basic information interesting and it gave me a different perspective of the life and times of the great magician and his wife, with an interesting fictional twist at the end.

Three stars and a thank you to Netgalley and Atria Books for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.

The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg

Perhaps it comes with the territory. Why do authors who write a fictionalized version of a famous individual feel the need to write what is in essence a biography. Yes, the research is incredible. The person who they describe is extraordinary. The resulting novel falls short.

That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg. Who wouldn’t be drawn to a story detailing the life of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin aka George Sand. She is one of the great heroines of literature, a largcer than life presence whose writings have stood the test of time. Berg follows the life of Aurore (1804-1876) from birth to death, detailing every aspect of her life.

This novel reads like a detailed diary/memoir/autobiography told from Sand’s point of view. From Berg’s narrative it is deduced that George was a spoiled prima donna subject to fits of mania and depression or highs and lows. Perhaps she was ADHD as she flit from one relationship to another. Once she got bored with one lover she moved on to the next. Her attitude tended to be – here I am now entertain me. She was over opinionated to the point of being rude. Her writing talent and success in a male dominated world did not always endear her to others. Jealousy was a constant issue. All of the above led to the emasculation of more than one lover. The author tries to paint a picture of Sand’s adult behaviors being caused by a traumatic childhood, but even at a young age, Aurore was a handful (as witnessed by her grandmother sending her to a convent during her rebellious teens). I’m sure the servants didn’t reprimand her out of malice (perhaps it was out of spite for her implied atrocious behaviors). Her children were treated like toys to be picked up and played with when convenient. To say George was self centered and egotistical would be a gross understatement. She personified those terms. Yet she had an enormous capacity to be loving and generous, willing to make sacrifices for those she held dear. Her life was filled with drama and excitement at a time when women knew their place and stayed behind caring for hearth and home. So while there was much to criticize about George’s behaviors, there was also a lot to admire. The same rebelliousness which drove society to distraction, mesmerized the artistic community. By sporting men’s clothing in public, Sand was able to circulate more freely in 1830’s Paris, giving her access to venues from which women were often barred, even women of her social standing. She loved to scandalize and took up smoking tobacco in public, another taboo. Her numerous affairs and relationships with those in the art world were legendary, as well as her influence on the great masters of the times – Chopin, Musset, Flaubert, Liszt, Hugo, Balzac, Delacroix. This creates an amazing backdrop to The Dream Lover, a story of a life full of zest and liveliness as well as sorrow and angst, as Aurore searches for true love. One of the most well known quotes of George Sand is: “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.” I would surmise that this is the theme of this novel.

So how could Elizabeth Berg make George Sand’s amazing life seem almost mundane? I thought it ironic that she turned to Nancy Horan for advice. I had recently read Horan’s Under a Wide and Starry Night about the romantic relationship between Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne and Robert Louis Stevenson. But Horan, like Berg, took much of the excitement out of the adventure. Is it the fact they insisted on a factual accounting of the life and times? That they felt compelled to give us every detail, no matter how minute. Better to have skipped over some of the day to day details. These aren’t diaries, they are romantic novels. Take some liberties. Focus on the dramatic events.

While Berg used a unique style, with the chapters switching back and forth between time frames, it was at times like experiencing déjà vu. I felt like I was reading random selections throughout the novel starting at pages towards the end then flipping to the beginning. An interesting concept which got confusing as past and future finally coincided.

Despite my criticisms, this was an incredible achievement – covering the life and death of George Sand. This book obviously reflected a tremendous amount of research and I loved the inclusion of the numerous quotes from Sand’s publications and correspondence. Perhaps I am a little greedy. I wanted more. I wanted more descriptions of the Parisian culture. I wanted more about the colorful characters who dominated the world of literature back then and even today. Not just name dropping, but an immersion into those fascinating days.

The hammer was swung, the bell was not rung. No oversized stuffed animal for the lady. Better luck next time.

I give this book three stars. I am grateful to Random House and Netgalley for allowing this free ARC in exchange for an honest review. Thank you to the author for such a detailed accounting of this amazing woman’s life.