Pitched as a novel not to be missed if you have read The Tattooist of Auschwitz and if you’ve watched The Queen’s Gambit, I was desperate to read The Last Checkmate, the debut novel from Gabriella Saab. Especially as I’m someone who cannot get enough of World War II fiction. Also everyone seems to be raving about this novel! Believe me, it did not disappoint. But I need to warn you, the harrowing tension, unease and fear I felt reading this book was so visceral at times.
This is a book full of raw emotion. It is the story of Maria, a 14 year-old Polish resistance fighter who is caught by the Gestapo and sent to Auschwitz with her family. Yet through her love of chess, Maria unwittingly evades being murdered by the Nazis as soon as she arrives at the death camp. However she soon learns that all her family have been sent to their deaths. This is not a spoiler but I did find this part of the novel so agonising to read, especially as it is written in such a way that I really felt Maria’s pain, grief and guilt. The fear and loneliness she also feels is so painfully stark, especially as she is a young girl alone in a hostile camp full of male prisoners.
As Maria slowly makes friends with the gentle Father Kolbe, a Catholic priest, she also realises that she must view her brutal life in Auschwitz as a game of chess. This is not just symbolic as she is actually forced to play the strategic game just to survive. Maria literally becomes a pawn to Karl Fritzsch, the cruel deputy of Auschwitz who is impressed by her ability to play chess. He uses this for his own sadistic entertainment. Yet as Maria knows that Fritzsch will eventually tire of her, she devises a dangerous strategy to outwit him once and for all. But will she succeed? And in orchestrating his downfall, what will she have to sacrifice?
The fight against Auschwitz was deeper and more complex than any on the battlefront. It whittled away at the mind and will until it had robbed its opponent of all defenses. Auschwitz was a master, but each day of survival was a day we defeated it. I intended for us to see this game through to the end.
As Maria learns more about the cold murders of her beloved family and witnesses Fritzsch’s volatile, sadistic nature as well as being a victim to it, her hatred for the man grows as the war nears the end. And so, Maria invites Fritzsch to one last game of chess; Maria’s last chance to avenge the murders of her family and ultimately to survive.
Yes, at times The Last Checkmate is a difficult read. I genuinely could feel the tension and fear surging through my body whilst reading it. But it is also beautiful as it is very much a story of determination, love and friendship. This powerfully shines through the narrative.
Another aspect of The Last Checkmate that I love is the historic detail. I have read and watched so much about World War II, I honestly felt there was not much more for me to learn. But I’m glad to say I was wrong, especially as this novel focuses on the Polish resistance, a movement I really didn’t know much about. Nor did I know that the Polish resistance infiltrated Auschwitz by planting Witold Pilecki, a real life Polish resistance fighter who features in this powerful novel.
In fact, quite a few real life figures feature in The Last Checkmate, including Father Kolbe and Karl Fritzsch. By her own admission in her insightful Author’s Note at the end of the novel, Gabriella Saab uses ‘various creative liberties for story purposes‘. In my view, her creative liberties poignantly enhance the novel as well as honour all the people that were sent to the horrific Nazi camps by creatively portraying their bravery.
The Last Checkmate has had a profound impact on me and is sure to stay with me. Thank you Gabriella Saab for that. Thank you also to Anne Cater from Random Things Tours for inviting me to be part of the blog tour of this powerful novel. To follow the blog tour, please see below.
The Last Checkmate was published in the UK on 25 November 2021 by Wm Morrow/Harper 360. If you are like me and are often consumed by historical war fiction but also love a creative twist, I urge you to read this. You will be moved and heartbroken, but you won’t be disappointed.