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Mischling reignites the debate about whether the Holocaust is a suitable subject for fiction, writes Margaret von Klemperer

This review was published in the Witness

AFFINITY Konar’s debut novel is an extraordinary piece of writing, powerfully imaginative, cleverly constructed and lyrical…but it is not an easy read. In places, it is close to unbearable.

The novel opens in 1944 with Polish identical twins Pearl and Stasha travelling to Auschwitz in a cattle truck with their mother and grandfather. On the verge of adolescence, they are immediately taken from their family and handed over to Dr Josef Mengele, whose name will resonate through time as one of the most evil people who has ever lived, and who is, of course, a man who never faced justice.

As part of Mengele’s so-called Zoo, the twins may have certain privileges not granted to other inmates of the death camp, but they will also be subjected to unspeakable horrors and experiments.

Konar, who has used many testimonies of Auschwitz survivors as source material, tells the story in alternating voices. Pearl is the gentler twin, the child who loves to dance, while Stasha is physically stronger and more imaginative.

The author controls the two streams of narrative skilfully as we read of the damage done to the children and the growing carapace of hatred that they, and particularly Stasha, grow in order to survive.

Then, with the end of the war coming closer, Pearl vanishes from a concert organised by Mengele. All Stasha has to cling to is the possibility that she is still alive somewhere, and when the camp is liberated, Stasha and Feliks, another surviving twin, escape from the Death March and set off on an odyssey of their own to the ruins of Warsaw with two aims in mind: to revenge themselves on Mengele and to find Pearl.

Nothing is spared of the sheer horror of the feral existence of the refugees in war-ravaged Europe, making the second half of the novel no easier to stomach than the earlier part set in Auschwitz.

This book reignites the debate about whether the Holocaust is a suitable subject for fiction. It is a debate that leaves me slightly conflicted: while Roberto Benigni’s 1997 Oscar-winning film Life is Beautiful came in for a lot of criticism for using humour to tell its story, it worked for me, but I disliked John Boyne’s manipulative, heavy-handed and implausible 2006 teen novel, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. Certainly Affinity Konar trivialises nothing, nor does her manner of telling the story manipulate our feelings.

Whether a novel is a good way of describing the horrors of Auschwitz is something people have to decide for themselves, but this book may persuade you that fiction is a legitimate and a powerful tool to remind the world of the existence of evil. – Margaret von Klemperer

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Atul & Ajay Borgia? Sarah Dunant's In the Name of the Family redresses the historical reputations of the infamous Borgia family

Published in the Sunday Times

Bron Sibree on Sarah Dunant’s latest historical novel which asks ‘who was this family, the Borgias, that everybody loved to hate?’

In the Name of the Family
Sarah Dunant
(Little, Brown, R255)

SARAH Dunant is famous for bringing the Renaissance to life in her bestselling historical novels. Page-turning stories so richly anchored in historical fact that they’ve received accolades from scholars and literary critics alike, and have been translated into 30 languages.

“The same energy that gave you the wonder of the Renaissance also gave you the horror,” she says on the eve of the launch of her 11th novel In the Name of the Family. The second in a duology about that infamous family, the Borgias, she sums it up as: “Hanging Catholic history out to dry. We wouldn’t have the Sistine Chapel, for instance, without church corruption — you couldn’t fit a credit card between the corruption and the creativity.”

British-born Dunant was an established thriller writer when she moved to Florence in 2000 during a moment of crisis. “I no longer wanted to write thrillers, and it was out of being really lost in Florence, in all senses of the word, that I began to ask what happened there 500 years ago.”

And in so doing, she gave voice to the story of a 15-year-old girl in The Birth of Venus. It became a surprise bestseller, inspired two more novels about the forgotten histories of women, and was credited with making the ideas of the Renaissance dangerous all over again.

But it is the new perspective she brings to the dangerous ideas of that other notorious Renaissance figure, Niccolo Machiavelli, in In the Name of the Family that is garnering her some of the most lavish praise of her career.

“One of the wonderful gifts of working on this book,” says Dunant, “was the discovery of Machiavelli as an impoverished young man; that this man who wrote arguably the most famous treatise on statecraft, The Prince, didn’t come out fully formed. He learned some of those ideas by being a not very well paid, not very important diplomat.

“His job was to be the eyes and ears of the Florentine state during a period of terrible insecurity when Florence might be picked off by Cesare Borgia’s army. So he was writing batches of letters back and forth, and I was able to find his voice through those letters.”

In the Name of the Family also goes a long way towards redressing the historical reputation of Lucrezia Borgia, the impulse that seeded Durant’s desire to write her 2014 novel Blood and Beauty. It was only when she began to contemplate writing about Lucrezia as part of her series about Renaissance women, says Dunant, “that I began to realise that some really big conspiracy had taken place in history to slander her”.

“So I started to think, ‘Who was this family, the Borgias, that everybody loved to hate?’ And how far back, as always happens when the victors write history, do you have to go to find out what really happened?

“And what I discovered is exactly what I’m describing in In the Name of the Family which is yes, they’re brutal, yes, they’re corrupt, yes, they don’t behave well, but nobody else around them is behaving well either, and that’s the bit we forget. And that’s the bit that was so fascinating.”

Dunant is intrigued by the historical facts of Lucrezia’s story — unlike the gossip about her as vamp and poisoner which has reverberated through the ages. “She emerged, just as Machiavelli said of her, as the last Borgia standing.”

Yet it was the corruption of Lucrezia’s father, Pope Alexander VI, who juggled mistresses, political intrigue and bloody wars with unholy zest, that compelled her to write of the Borgias as a family. “I wanted to look at the phenomenon of this historical moment, because it is that level of papal corruption that triggers the 1517 Reformation. So this is a very important moment in church and Italian history.”

She is now embarking upon a BBC radio series about the discipline of history, how rich it is, how much it is changing. “I couldn’t have written these books 25 years ago, because so much of this history has emerged since then,” she says.

Dunant is as keen to acknowledge her debt to academia as she is to highlight the perils of our current age, which she views as one of half-truths and gossip.

“We need to understand how history is made more than ever now when the present is as dangerous as it is.” @BronSibree

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A teeming, enthralling and storied city: Michele Magwood reviews Istanbul - A Tale of Three Cities by Bettany Hughes

Published in the Times

IstanbulIstanbul – A Tale of Three Cities
Bettany Hughes (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

As any visitor to Istanbul will tell you, the past lies very close to the surface of this storied city. There are the dreaming spires of the vast mosques and sites such as the Hippodrome, setting for frenzied chariot races from AD 200, city walls standing since the 5th century or simply a blazing gold frescoe in a church in a run-down suburb. It is nigh impossible, though, to imagine the myriad incarnations of the city, with its convoluted history of warfare and stunning architectural and engineering achievement, of sackings and sieges but of high art and exquisite culture too. Archaeologists have measured more than 40 human habitation layers in the settlement, including Phoenicians, Genoese, Venetians, Jews and Vikings.

The award-winning historian and broadcaster Bettany Hughes has written a majestic biography of the first truly global city, where East meets West and North meets South. She has the exceptional skill of leavening meticulous research with vivid anecdote and atmosphere as she guides us through its three phases: Byzantium, Constantinople and Istanbul.

So, while the historical events are recorded, she also segues into such detail as the silk trade. A stinking business and the city smelled of sea snails boiling in urine and the faeces of silkworms. It took 12000 snails to colour the hem of a single purple robe. “Medieval Constantinople must have been rank,” she observes.

There was a zoo at the Kynegion, an amphitheatre that was at times used for public executions, but where battles with animals provided entertainment.

“When we think of Roman Byzantium, she notes, “we should conjure the cityscape punctured by the yowl of big cats and the screech of distressed elephants – animals imported to satisfy a gruesome Roman pleasure in live-action death.”

The pages are stuffed with memorable characters, such as the Athenian general, the wide boy Alcibiades of the 50th century BC, who she describes as “feckless, over-sexed, immoderate, dazzling, raffish, louche”. There’s the proto-feminist Empress Theodora, exotic dancer and daughter of a bear tamer, who caught the eye of the Emperor Justinian and who reformed women’s property rights, built safe houses for prostitutes and upped the punishment for rape – as well as helping to design the staggering Hagia Sophia.

It’s a teeming, enthralling book, written with verve and a reminder that the Queen of Cities has endured much worse in her history.

Follow @michelemagwood


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Roger Ballen to host solo exhibition at Los Angeles Festival of Photography

Known for his stark, unsettling images of peripheral South African figures and austere architecture, as well as his collaboration with local zef-rap band Die Antwoord, photographer Roger Ballen will be hosting a solo-exhibition, Ballenesque, at the L.A. Festival of Photography from the 18th to the 23rd of April.

Ballen, born in New York and based in Johannesburg, has published nine books on his photographic works, including Outland, Shadow Chamber, Asylum of the Birds, Platteland, Dorps and Boarding House.

Click here for more information on the exhibition.

Read an interview with Ballen on his most recent series ‘The Theatre of Apparitions’ here.


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Shadow Chamber


Asylum of the Birds






Boarding House

The Hate U Give speaks up loudly for an ignored, ill-treated and maligned community, writes Tammy February

Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give is a powerful and brave YA novel about what prejudice looks like in the 21st century.

Sixteen-year-old Starr lives in two worlds: the poor neighbourhood where she was born and raised and her posh high school in the suburbs. The uneasy balance between them is shattered when Starr is the only witness to the fatal shooting of her unarmed best friend, Khalil, by a police officer. Now what Starr says could destroy her community. It could also get her killed.

Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this is a powerful and gripping novel about one girl’s struggle for justice.

Tammy February recently reviewed the novel for Women24. Read an extract here:

There are going to be a lot of people who will use the following words when recommending this book to you: “If you only read one book this year, make sure it’s this one.”

My advice to you? Listen to them (because I’m echoing their sentiment right now, and as a reader and reviewer who generally eschews reading a book because of hype, that’s definitely saying something).

We may only be three months into 2017, but I’m pretty convinced that this book will be on every bookseller and reader’s best of 2017 list, and for a very good reason.

The Hate U Give is simply brilliant. Inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, this novel is not just a profoundly important novel providing social commentary on race, but it’s also one that raises the black community’s voice loud and proud by providing a marginalised community with an authentically black, vocal and strong female voice – one that we don’t see nearly enough of in fiction …

It’s a novel that sums up what it’s like for black communities to constantly deal with the systematic, insidious and hate-fuelled oppression they’ve been dealing with since the dawn of civilisation, and it’s one that I’m fairly sure will be eye-opening to many, even those who consider themselves the staunchest Black Lives Matter allies.

Continue reading February’s review here.
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The Silent Violinist - Anna Stroud reviews Min Kym's memoir Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung

Min Kym’s memoir tells a story of sacrifice, pain and separation, writes Anna Stroud for the Sunday Times

GoneGone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung
Min Kym (Penguin Random House)

There are two protagonists at the centre of Min Kym’s acute memoir; Min the person and Min the violin. The two are inseparable, until one day when Min the violin is wrenched away from Min the person.

From the start the reader knows that something is amiss. You can sense the aching void in the narrator as she recounts the story of how she became Min, without a violin. It starts in the 1980s. Min-Jin Kym and her family move from Korea to London, where her father works for Daewoo. Min accompanies her older sister to piano lessons, but doesn’t get to play. One day, her mother asks her if she wants to play something. The piano is already taken, but perhaps the violin?

That is how Min becomes a child prodigy. Everything she plays shimmers with hope and promise. She has perfect pitch. However, when her father is recalled to Korea she must give up the violin. Sensing the heartache in his daughter, her father goes against his family, against his very Korean-ness, and moves Min, her mother and sister back to London where she has a better chance of becoming an artist.

Tucked away in the folds of the memoir are the things Min doesn’t spell out in words: the sacrifices she makes to live up to expectation, the damage inflicted on a young child who just wants to play the violin.

Min the child prodigy is shy and introverted. Her world revolves around her violin. She’s eager to please and obedient as Korean children ought to be. This makes her vulnerable to manipulation by people who don’t have her best interests at heart.

As she grows older, Min the violin has the world at her feet; standing ovations greet her wherever she goes. She’s lived up to expectation. But Min the person is not so successful. She struggles with her personal life. She trusts the wrong people, believing that others know what’s best for her.

This brings the reader to the point where Min is violently separated from her violin.

Gone: A Girl, a Violin, a Life Unstrung
is told with brutal, raw honesty. This is a memoir, a true story. If you google the author and the disappearance of her 300-year-old Stradivarius which was stolen outside Euston Station in 2010, it’s clear that Min’s voice was never heard. Instead, men she trusted spoke for her, steering the narrative towards their own version of events.

For that reason, Gone is a celebration of Min’s voice. Throughout the memoir, she grapples with her identity. Is she Korean, or a Londoner? Is she a girl, or an artist, or both? How to be both in a world that favours the artist? Finally she has had a chance to tell her story, in her own voice, to a captive audience: the reader. @annawriter_

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