Review: The Last Checkmate by Gabriella Saab

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Maria is many things: daughter, avid chess player, and member of the Polish underground resistance in Nazi-occupied Warsaw.  Captured by the Gestapo she is imprisoned in Auschwitz, while her family is sent to their deaths. Realizing her ability to play chess, the sadistic camp deputy, Fritzsch, intends to use her as a chess opponent to entertain the camp guards. However, once he tires of utilizing her skills, he has every intention of killing her.   Befriended by a Catholic priest, Maria attempts to overcome her grief and see the value in survival. Literally playing for her life through four grueling years, her strategy is simple: Live. Fight. Survive. By cleverly provoking Fritzsch’s volatile nature in front of his superiors, Maria intends to orchestrate his downfall. Only then will she have a chance to evade the fate awaiting her and see him brought to justice.

  As she carries out her plan and the war nears its end, she discovers Fritzsch has survived.  And so Maria, vowing still to avenge the murder of her family, challenges her former nemesis to one final game, certain to end in life or death, in failure or justice. If Maria can bear to face Fritzsch—and her past—one last time.

Source: NetGalley and Wm. Morrow Paperbacks Rating: 3/5 stars

The Bottom Line:  If you’ve been with me for any length of time, you know I am like a moth to a flame when it comes to Holocaust reads.  I can’t resist this part of history and find the individual stories of courage and heroism utterly fascinating.  I wish I could say I found Maria utterly fascinating, but I did not.  Even considering the extraordinary circumstances and the historical fiction labelling, I found Maria to be something of a stretch as a character.  While I don’t doubt someone like Maria existed and was likely imprisoned by the Nazi regime, I just couldn’t get behind her being singled out for survival because she was holding a chess piece when she arrived at Auschwitz.  Furthermore, I had a hard time believing the revenge aspect of this story and how it all played out in the end.

All the above begs the question, how can I still be at three stars if I found the lead character so unbelievable?  The answer to that is easy: I found two of the minor characters quite believable and far more sympathetic which led me to see their stories through to the end.  Hania and Irena played out as far more believable characters who used their own strengths and cunning to survive unbearable and tremendous circumstances.  Both Irena and Hania served as a strong counterbalance to Maria, and I was so glad to read the ending of the respective stories.  In all, these two women saved this read for me and kept me reading until the very end.  I want to recommend this book to readers, but I don’t feel completely comfortable doing so.  There are just too many issues with the main character to make this a truly good and recommendable read.

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