cover image The Tattoo Artist

The Tattoo Artist

Jill Ciment, . . Pantheon, $23 (207pp) ISBN 978-0-375-42325-3

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. (Aug.)