Memorial candles illuminate a tortured past

“The Devil’s Madonna,” by Sharon Potts. Oceanview Publishing. 328 pages. $25.95.

Reading this sophisticated thriller is definitely addictive. Sharon Potts has taken us into a nightmare world where the past and present collide and where evil eventually has a name and a face. The author imagines a woman whose irrational sense of guilt has frozen her emotional life. Now in her nineties, Lillian Campbell (whose earlier identities we will come to know), had been a distant mother to her daughter, Dorothy, who in turn had difficulty being a loving mother to her daughter, Kali. There is evidence that Dorothy’s death, many years ago, was possibly a suicide. 

The novel’s protagonist, artist and book illustrator Kali Miller, was raised by Lillian after Dorothy’s death, but it was a cold relationship. Kali, now married and pregnant, is determined to know more about her secretive grandmother in order to know more about herself. She also feels responsible for looking after the frail, fading, and haunted woman, who is her only blood relative.

The artistic challenge of “The Devil’s Madonna,” brilliantly met, is to take readers into Lillian’s tormented memories and nightmares. Often enough, Lillian confuses these visions with her present, conscious perceptions. Sometimes, she speaks or sings eerily in Yiddish. Always guarded, she is more and more fearful of intruders who would discover long-hidden truths and enact some kind of vengeance. The author’s achievement in taking us into Lillian’s thoughts, emotions, and recollections of her mysterious past in Nazi Germany is spectacular.

Sharon Potts

The flashbacks and nightmares reveal Lillian’s distant past as an Austrian child (Ilse Strauss) and later as a gorgeous young woman in Berlin going by her stage name Leli Lenz (she had yet other identities before becoming Mrs. Harry Campbell). Blonde and blue-eyed, Leli’s Jewish genes had been well disguised, but now the aged, tormented Lillian has been driven to exorcise her demons in an unusual way: she fills her home with dozens of Yarhzeit (memorial) candles, fulfilling the Jewish tradition of honoring the souls of the departed. In the process, she almost burns the house down.

Kali is overwhelmed with the tasks of attending to her grandmother’s dangerous behavior, keeping herself healthy through her pregnancy, and appeasing her childishly dependent husband, Seth, who can’t deal with Kali’s absence when she stays to attend Lillian. Yet Kali is determined to uncover the past, and her grandmother has the keys. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the October 17, 2012 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly,the October 18 Bonita Springs and Space Coast editions, and the October 25 Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Potts Madonna

This review has been reprinted in the July-August 2013 of Federation Star (Jewish Federation of Collier Count), as well as the July 2013 issues of L’Chayim (Jewish Federation of Lee and Charlotte Countes) and The Jewish News (Jewish Federation of Sarasota/Manatee).

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Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors, Jewish Themes

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