Memorial candles illuminate a tortured past in sophisticated thriller

¦ “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 90s, 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, could have been a suicide.

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

POTTS POTTS The artistic challenge of “The Devil’s MMadonna,” brilliantly met, is to take readers into Lillian’s tormented memories and nightmares. Often enough, she 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. 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).

Because she was blonde and blueeyed, 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 goes to take care of Lillian. Yet Kali is determined to uncover the past, and her grandmother has the keys.

Fortunately, Kali’s childhood friend Neil lives nearby and is extremely supportive, even taking care of Lillian on several occasions. His deep, respectful love for Kali is at once a blessing and an additional complication.

A separate narrative thread presents a character who is, in fact, tracking down Lillian and her secrets.

Javier Guzman is the son of a former Nazi functionary who first recoiled against his father’s activities but later came to be fully committed to the super-race ideology. He is searching for the woman who has knowledge that threatens his cause, and he finally discovers her — it’s Lillian. It is also Lillian, he suspects, who has possession of an important miniature portrait that he needs.

Pushing his plan along, Guzman becomes obsessed with Kali. His twisted, devious psyche and equally twisted scheme charges the novel with demonic venom. The final confrontation between him and Kali is nerve wrenching — and more.

Minor characters who help flesh out the plot are finely drawn. These include most notably Kali’s in-laws, especially her harshly judgmental motherin law, Mitzi. The mysterious Dr. Altwulf, who comforts and then pursues Leli the ingénue and who is assisted in the 1930s by Guzman’s father, turns out to have another identity as well. The two men in Kali’s life, Neil and Seth, also reveal unexpected dimensions.

All in all, the author has spun a darkly intriguing tale, a tale of lingering and recurring horrors and of people pushed to and beyond the limits of sanity.

Well-crafted, tonally rich, psychologically resonant and stunningly visualized, “The Devil’s Madonna” should captivate a wide audience. ¦

— Phil Jason, Ph. D., United States Naval Academy professor emeritus of English, is a poet, critic and fr eelance writer with 20 books to his credit, including several studies of war literature and a creative writing text.

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2012-10-18 digital edition

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