I vividly recall one of my lecturers responding to a student’s complaint about their mark for an essay – the lecturer said that if the student thought he started at 100% and deducted marks for errors as he read, the student was mistaken – “You start with no marks and earn them as I read…” It comes to mind because like the lecturer, I go into every book hoping for five stars but stating with just one. Half stars and whole stars accrue (and sometimes fall) as I read. By the end, I settle on a score – it’s arbitrary, but is useful measure when I look back on my reading.
Which leads me to Mischling by Affinity Konar. I tend to avoid fictionalised accounts of the Holocaust (there are plenty of true stories available) – I feel uncomfortable about the exploitation of historical events for ‘entertainment’ (obviously this makes unfavourable and overly simplistic assumptions about authors ‘exploiting’ and readers reading only for ‘entertainment’). However, I picked up Mischling because it made the Best Books of 2016 list.
It’s the story of twin girls, Pearl and Stasha, who arrive at Auschwitz in 1944 and immediately become part of the experimental population of twins known as Mengele’s Zoo. Josef Mengele, perpetrator of unparalleled atrocities at Auschwitz, particularly focused on medical and genetic experiments, and favoured twins, as he could use one as a ‘control’ in his experiments.
Konar’s story details the bond between the girls – telepathic in nature; what happens to them at Auschwitz; and what follows when the camp is abandoned by the SS and death marches begin across Poland.
I am going to assume that Konar did her research and that the gratuitous details about Mengele’s experiments are correct. These scenes are easy-pickings for the author – of course the reader will sit up and take notice but how do they contribute to Holocaust literature in general? They don’t. Equally, Konar’s use of imagery (poppies) and symbols (a piano key) to articulate the horror and hopes of Auschwitz prisoners falls flat – their ‘meaningfulness’ was forced and heavy-handed.
There is opportunity for suspense in the second half but instead, the story plods along and is confused with the introduction of multiple characters, that blur into a drawn-out and predictable ending.
When I finished the book I considered what elements of the story stood out. There was only one – the portrayal of Mengele as ‘Uncle Doctor’. The ‘kindly’ name obviously a complete contradiction to his cruel nature. Those belonging to the ‘zoo’ were given more food and clothing than other prisoners, but at the cost of enduring Mengele’s horrific experiments. This element of the story highlighted the hierarchies between prisoners, created by their captors, and the trauma inherent in those hierarchies (similar to the Kapo, although the Kapo was not referred to in this book).
I received my copy of Mischling from the publisher, Little, Brown & Company, via NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.