The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

Review published on January 4, 2018.

Based on the true story of two Auschwitz-Birkenau survivors, Heather Morris’s debut novel, The Tattooist of Auschwitz, is a tale that will live long in the minds of its readers.

As the title suggests, the novel focuses on the man who was tasked with tattooing the numbers of all those who arrived in the dreaded concentration camps, Lale Sokolov. Morris weaves Lale’s story into a mesmerising fictional narrative, that at times leaves the reader astonished not purely by what Lale witnesses and experiences, but the determination and resolve of this man. Whilst it is hard not to get drawn into the optimism and satisfaction of Lale’s story, there is a very palpable sense in which, despite his own trials and tribulations, his is a very fortuitous lot given the horrors of the majority of those around him. Yet there is no denying the charm and tenderness of the love story between Lale and the woman whose tattoo he marks and subsequently falls in love with, Gita. It is both a terrific oxymoron and a testimony of the triumph of love that the human capacity for affection and compassion can reveal itself in such an horrific setting, but it is also testament to these two individuals that they can foster love in the darkest of moments.

As well as the extraordinary tale of Lale and Gita’s relationship, the novel also sheds light on Lale’s ‘work’ as a tattooist, and the difficult often compromising role that he plays and the internal battles he faces, as well as the risky and dangerous choices he makes to try and help those around him. At times it is inevitably a difficult read, not so much because Morris shows the graphic depravities and realities of the concentration camp, but rather because despite making us root for Lale and Gita, it is impossible not to contrast the fates of many others. Theirs is an inspirational and buoyant story, but also a rare one. Nevertheless, it is a wonder to read of their triumph against the odds, and the myriad ways they survive, by luck, by grace and by sheer will.

Although the author tends to be sparse in her writing, this is a book whose story – not least because it is based on true events – couldn’t fail to affect me. I longed for Lale and Gita’s happiness and future, but I was also haunted by all those who didn’t achieve either. This is also a book, I imagine, that will appeal to reading groups and offer up many important and worthy questions that are as vital today as they were in the past. And it is a novel that also inspires the reader to return to this most dreadful of histories, to learn more, not least the human stories that emerge from the darkest of days. For me, reading this book was a pleasure, a lesson and a reminder; I would recommend it to all readers.

Jade Craddock 5/5

The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
Zaffre 9781785763649 hbk Jan 2018

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