The Last Checkmate

Morrow Oct. 2021. 416p. ISBN 9780063143388. $16.99. F
DEBUT Saab’s first novel is historical fiction imbued with the gentlest touch of romance. Set in Poland in the 1940s, this harrowing tale is told by Maria, a resistance worker imprisoned in Auschwitz. It opens right after the end of World War II, in the disbanded camp where Maria is playing a game of chess against one of her former captors. Subsequent chapters switch from past to present, allowing readers to build a picture of Maria’s life in Warsaw and to compare this to the horror of her present existence. The reason for the intriguing chess game gradually becomes more apparent, although Saab cleverly conceals Maria’s full motives. While the subject matter is disturbing, Maria is a touching protagonist. Emotional accounts of the friends Maria meets in Auschwitz and moving descriptions of the chess games she continually plays—against both friends and enemies—bring elements of hope and individuality to this tale.
VERDICT Fans of World War II fiction with strong female leads, such as Sarah McCoy’s The Baker’s Daughter and Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, will enjoy this story. The recurring theme of chess is also reminiscent of Walter Tevis’s The Queen’s Gambit.
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