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The Tattoo Artist: A Novel Paperback – October 17, 2006

4.4 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

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.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Ciment, a fine memoirist and novelist, presents a provocative story of art and trespass. Sara, a plucky Lower East Side shopgirl, gets involved with wealthy would-be artist Philip and proves to be a more talented painter than he. This precipitates an erotically charged power struggle interrupted by the devastation of the Depression. ?Abruptly destitute, they jump at the chance to travel to the South Pacific to collect island art, but disaster awaits. Improvising astutely on the spectacular tattooing culture of the Marquesas Islands, Ciment invents a fictional body-art-focused culture, then orchestrates bitterly ironic catastrophes that maroon Sara on the island of Ta'un'uu and force her to take up the needle in lieu of the brush and create not on canvas but on her own skin. By the time a Life reporter tracks her down 30 years later and brings her back to a nearly unrecognizable New York, she, too, has changed beyond all imagining. Similar to novelist Samantha Gillison, Ciment covers cross-cultural terrain, creating a remarkably smart and edgy tale laced with sharp insights into time and change, the nature of the self and the significance of art, folly and survival. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (October 17, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 140007844X
  • ISBN-13: 978-1400078448
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.6 x 8.6 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 6.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #575,637 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
It's been several months since I read this book, and I still can't forget it. One of my favorite books of last year, and all time. This not a typical novel written in the typical authorial voice generated by writer workshops and popular weekly magazines. This story about art, love, and tattoos explores the mysteries inherent in each, without falling into pat themes or regurgitated meaning. Not a retelling of myth, it works on a mythological level and I was transformed by it, as if I had not just read about tattoos but gotten one. And in a way I have, that's how strongly I feel about this book, it's not just something I read, it's something I experienced.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jill Ciment's new novel "The Tattoo Artist" is deceptively slender. Although it is only 207 pages long, it is stuffed with events, history, fascinating characters and important ideas. For these reasons, book groups will have a great time talking about this novel, especially the ending.

As someone who reads novels almost exclusively and who has read almost all of Ciment's work, I think she makes a leap with this book that is similar to the one made by novelist Andrea Barrett in her marvelous book "Ship Fever," which won the National Book Award. Ciment has pushed herself to a whole new level as a writer here. As usual, her prose is spare and taut, and that works very effectively in the service of her tale about a "primitive" society. I couldn't put this book down, and I can't stop thinking about it.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
The Tattoo Artist is as unique a book as I've ever read. It is brilliant in its conception and completion. I loved both the story and the metaphors. It is a book that will have you in its grip for a long time.

Sara and Philip Ehrenreich meet in New York in the early 20th century. Both are jewish activists. However, Sara comes from poverty and Philip from money. They are both avant-garde in their beliefs and love the world of art, culture, and revolution. Philip wishes more than anything that he could create art but he lacks that real gift. Sara, however, has it, and she becomes a celebrity in her own right. They end up partnering but their relationship is very open and experimental from the beginning. All is well until the depression hits and Philip loses everything. They are backed by a wealthy patron who has been impressed by Philip's mask collection and they head to the South Seas to collect masks from the Ta'un'uuans.

Once they reach their destination, unbeknownst to them, they will remain on this island for thirty years. Their first impression of the island and its inhabitants is mind-blowing. All the islanders are tattooed and their first view of them is like watching a moving tapestry. At first, Sara assumes that the beauty of the island is the inspiration for all their tattoos. Gradually she realizes how wrong she is. Their tattoos, which cover their whole bodies, including their tongues and the soles of their feet, tell stories, narratives of lives lived and lives lost. Through a series of unexpected events, Sara finds herself tattooed all over as well.

The prologue to the book introduces us to Sara and her tattoos. She is responsible for all of their design except for the tattoos on her face.
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Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
"In the beginning, there was only God's breath, which became the first song. God then sang into existence the sun, and the stars, which are but musical notes suspended in the night sky; and all the oceans, and the ocean's currents, which are but melodies moving through liquid." ~The Tattoo Artist: A Novel

The elixir of immortality is art, whether the written word or art in another form. This prose of this powerful novel reminded me of the writings of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and other literary masters of an olden era.

To be certain, this novel isn't typical feel good literary pablum with the requisite happily-ever-after Hollywood ending (which seemed to disappoint certain reviewers). The novel is suggestive; it appeals to the sense and soul, and elicits emotion.

Deceptively simply and elegantly written, this story is a study of several characters, primarily a young woman named Sara Ehrenreich who evolves from a worker into an artist) and their exploration of the shadow, the dark edge, between art and life, sexuality and love, as they traverse their lives in this record of life in a bygone era. The nuanced setting and scenes, from New York to the island inhabited by the Ta'un'uuans, richly adds to the emotional depth of the read.

Sara Ehrenreich is a marvelous character, who lives and breathes in the pages, as she explores her identity, art, love, life and personal truths. Like life, in some ways this novel is a vortex of anguish that explores what it means to human. We strive and suffer all the while a series of uncontrollable events unfolds around us. There were many lyrical passages, some which almost moved me to tears, in the book:

"In the Ta'un'uuans' cosmology, only what has already been sung into existence is perceivable.
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Format: Paperback
I work in a library and this book wasn't checked out once in a year. So I decided to read it before it got relegated to the give away bin...well I'm glad I did! This was a riveting story. I'm not sure why but this book reminded me of Life of Pi, a favorite of mine. Maybe it's because of marooned theme. Tattoo artist was just different and full of imagery. I highly recommend it. I find that I'm still thinking about it after having finished it; a rare occurrence for me.
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