Title: The Devil's Madonna
Author: Sharon Potts
Publisher: Oceanview Publishing
At long last, a novel that is a page-turner in every sense of the word. This one was the 'unputdownable' we always keep hearing about. The plot offered a delicious surprise at every step of the way.
Kali, a young artist, is expecting her first child with her husband Seth Miller. Happy and contented both in the marriage as well as her work as an artist, there is nevertheless an emptiness within her heart as she aches to know more about her family’s heritage and history. The loss of her parents and grandfather at a young age and the reluctance of her 93-year-old grandmother Lillian Campbell, her only living relative, to share any information about the past have always left her nursing a sense of loss and disconnection. She therefore eagerly embraces Judaism, her husband’s faith, in an attempt to restore to herself the sense of belonging that she has never felt.
When Lillian lights dozens of sacred Yahrzeit Memorial candles, the traditional Jewish symbol of repentance, and nearly burns down the house and endangers herself, Kali becomes aware of the increasing paranoia that is consuming her grandmother. She realizes that the elderly woman is in thrall of some fear associated with something unsavoury in her past. When her inlaws and husband hint that Lillian may have been repenting for some misdeed to do with the Holocaust, Kali defends her grandmother strongly.
Assuming the role of a caregiver to her grandmother, Kali becomes aware of Lillian’s fears for her own life and for Kali and her unborn child. Her attempts to question Lillian drive the older woman into a world of nightmares. Kali is unsure if the fears are an effect of Lillian’s illness and the onset of dementia, or if something sinister is afoot.
Meanwhile concern for her grandmother and the reappearance of an old childhood friend, Neil, drive a wedge between Kali and Seth. And the dangerous games being planned and played out by geriatric specialist Javier Guzmann portend a realisation of Lillian’s greatest fears. Kali’s attempts to search her grandmother’s house lead her to a small painting. The final revelation of the horrible secret that has tortured Lillian all her life exposes Kali and her unborn baby in turn to the danger that her grandmother has feared all her life.
We, as readers, are able to piece together the details of Lillian’s mysterious past in Berlin in the 1930s through her senile mutterings and the dream-like memories of her befuddled mind. Through these ravings, it becomes clear to us, but not to Kali, that she is desperately trying to hide from something or someone. Someone who knew her at a time when she was Lili Lenz, a 20-year-old actress in Germany. Someone who has waited for many decades for the opportunity to trace her whereabouts and destroy her.
As readers, we feel torn between our knowledge of the nefariousness of Guzmann’s intentions and our inability to protect Kali, who is not only vulnerable, by virtue of her pregnancy, but also in immediate danger.
I found the writing of this book very fluid. Potts has shown herself a master at building atmosphere and creating tension. As Kali’s support structures begin to fall back all around, one gets a terrifying sense of the walls closing in on the vulnerable Kali.
The only false note in the narrative was sounded when Javier Guzmann got into flashback mode and looked back on himself as an 11-year-old boy bullied at school. While Potts succeeded in painting Guzmann as a menacing and dangerous man, I could not quite get a grip on why he should have sought to make his father’s desperate struggles his own. His own attempts to win over his estranged son were another subplot that wasn’t tied up well.
I must also admit that at first I was slightly disappointed to learn that there would be no happy ending for Kali, that, bereft of all her support systems, she would have no choice but to fight her life-and-death battle alone. But as I read on, I was glad that Potts had chosen a not-quite-perfect ending. It was a reminder to me that in the real world, love does not always conquer all, and that the wounds borne by millions of people in what was the darkest period of human history would most certainly have been too poignant to have been set aside like a cloak.
The strong characterization of Kali was tremendously appealing. Incidentally, the young lead is named after Kali, the Hindu goddess of destruction and empowerment, or shakti. As a woman, I felt pleased to see how Kali took the responsibility of her own safety and that of her child in her own hands, without forcing herself to depend on any man.
The title is a brilliant coup, the significance of which made itself evident only once the heroine was thrust into the biggest crisis of her life. I would heartily recommend this to everyone.