In 1970, Sara Ehrenreich boards a small plane and returns to New York City with much fanfare; she will be featured in Life magazine. She has not left Ta'un'uu–the South Seas island upon which she and her husband, Philip, were marooned during a storm–in more than thirty years. Sara doesn’t know that man has landed on the moon. She has never seen a ballpoint pen. Her body is covered, head to toe, in tattoos.
Flashback: it’s 1918 and Sara, a shop girl and aspiring artist, meets Philip, a wealthy member of the avant-garde elite. The two fall in love, marry, and collaborate to make art, surrounded by socialites and revolutionaries–until the Depression cripples not just Sara and Philip, but most of their patrons. When Philip is offered a job gathering masks from the South Seas, they jump at a chance to escape America’s sorrows, traveling to Ta’un’uu for what they think will be a week’s stay.
The rest is history–a history Sara records on her skin through the traditional tattoos that become her masterpiece and provide an accounting of her days. Narrated in vivid and starkly moving prose, The Tattoo Artist reminds us of the unforeseeable forces that shape each human life.
Ciment's notable new novel (after Teeth of a Dog) narrates the vanguard life of a New York surrealist artist whose 30 years among South Pacific natives teaches her the sacred art of tattooing. Born at the turn of the century to Jewish immigrants, freethinking Sara escapes her seamstress job via Philip Ehrenreich, a banker's son turned Marxist revolutionary who moves her into his Greenwich Village flat and introduces her to the New York art scene. They make a fabulous avant-garde couple until the New York art world goes bust in the run-up to WWII, and they take off for the South Seas in search of native art. Marooned on the island of Tu'un'uu, the castaways find their love tested when the natives forcibly tattoo their faces. Eventually, with no hope of escape, tattooing each other with the gorgeous dyes becomes a mournful expression of love and loss. After Philip's untimely death, Sara becomes an elder craftsman of the religious art, rendering herself "a piece of living tapestry." Three decades later Sara returns to New York after a roving Life magazine reporter discovers her on the island and photographs her, revealing her curious life's work to the world. Though historically fantastic, Ciment's latest is poignant and anthropologically intriguing.
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I read this book about ten years ago and have since considered it one of the best that I've ever read. The story is rare and unexpected and, I would say, haunting and the author draws the characters with a poignancy that makes them and their story an unforgettable one. Looking forward to savoring it a second time.