One of the most iconic strategy board games ever invented is Chess, its spanned cultural and physical divides while also been the basis of a hit stage musical (Chess) and the central theme of one of Netflix’s leading show’s (The Queen’s Gambit). In primary school here in Ireland, nowadays and in the past, one of the many extra-curricular activities was a chess club. I wasn’t great and regularly walked home in a funk or on the verge of tears, having been soundly beaten by everyone I played, while my friends seemed to be able to easily win. But like most things, if you stick at it, you get an appreciation for it, which I have. It’s been years since I played, despite the ample availability of virtual chess games online. On top of that, I once owned a small computer chess game that supposedly recreated the moves of Grand Master Gary Kasparoff.
Never in my school days, or playing the computerized grand master, did I feel that my life depended on winning the game, unlike the central character in this month’s book review. It’s “The Last Checkmate” by Gabriella Saab and published by William Morrow ( www.harpercollins.com/collections/william-morrow ) on the 25th November.
When Maria Florkowska, a young polish resistance worker, is rounded up and sent to Auschwitz, she is accidentally separated from her family, who are subsequently all murdered on arrival. From then on Maria places all her faith in a small handmade pawn clasped in her hand, as she is an avid chess player. This soon comes to the attention of her brutal camp commandant Fritsch, who sets about making an exhibition of her and forcing her and her opponents to play for their lives. Maria resents Fritsch for the event which led to the separation from her family and along with the brutal beating he metes out to her on regular basis. So, she sets about trying to avenge the death of her family and the cold-blooded execution of a polish priest she had befriended and who had taken her under his wing. Will she succeed in getting Fritsch transferred or will she survive the war and track him down to play one final game with him?
There have been numerous books and films set within the barbed wire confines of Auschwitz, from a Boy in Striped Pyjamas, as well as the more recently published book about a tatooist in there, to the bloody reality depicted in print and on screen by Schindler’s list. But Gabriella Saab’s premise of having a young female chess player, engage in a twisted forerunner of Squid Game, is truly one of the most remarkable and thought-provoking books I’ve read in a long while.
The final verse of Chris de Burgh’s song ‘Spanish Train’, stuck with me throughout this read. “…The lord and the devil are now playing chess. The devil still cheats and wins more souls, and as for the lord, well he keeps doing his best.”. Because for every one of the three hundred and eighty pages you live and breathe the feeling that good and evil are meeting over the chess boards, and are on tenterhooks, as you will this young heroine to keep going and win against all the odds, knowing that one false move, will lead to certain death for the pleasure of this sadistic monster. But also, Gabriella intertwines good souls within the story who help Maria, and it’s these other characters which help to make it more realistic, because, you know that in any dire situation there is always good trying to even the balance.
Saabs’ characters are immersive and believable. While the story telling and the descriptions of life in war time Poland, followed by her internment in one of the most hellish places in history, never gets old. Despite how familiar the reader maybe with what occurred within its perimeter, I would go so far as to say that thanks to the numerous films and tv depictions of concentrations camps over the years, it is very easy for the readers imagination to get going while living and feeling every inch of this story.
This American author Gabriella Saab’s debut novel(www.gabriellasaab.com). She graduated from Mississippi State University with a Bachelor of Business Administration and Marketing, when not writing she works as a Barre instructor in her hometown of Mobile, Alabama. Her research for this book, took her to Auschwitz and Warsaw, to dig deeper into the experiences of those who lived there during the war.
If you are looking for a great historical read over the festive season or even to set you up for the long dark days of January, I would highly recommend that you get down to your local book shop, while observing all covid the restrictions and get a copy or just download it or order one online. Then boldly step into Saab’s tense and thoroughly enjoyable novel.
Reviewed by: Adrian Murphy
This book review is part of a Random Things Blog Tour, to see what the other reviewers thought visit their blogs listed below. Then, if you get a copy, comeback and tell us what you thought. We’d really appreciate the feedback.