FF’s Star Rating: ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆
“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” These are words uttered by Brad Pitt in the movie Fury which, like Affinity Konar’s Mischling, is also set in World War II. I’ve seen lots of movies that show how cruel and vile some humans, if those beings that so many actors have portrayed can even be called that, can be. But to read a book, even a fictitious one such as this, that explores that sickening nature of mankind is another story all together. The good thing in a book such as this can only be the hope that the reader has for its characters to somehow make it through all that and survive. Hopefully, the characters we bond with do.
Stasha and Pearl are Jewish twins with blonde hair and brown eyes. When the twins turned twelve, their mother and grandfather handed them over to a doctor named Josef Mengele and so came to be confined in a place called the Zoo, along with other twins, triplets and quints. Because they are in Mengele’s Zoo, they believe their parents to be safe. At first, no actual harm comes to Pearl and Stasha, but then Pearl notices that something has changed in her sister after Mengele took her away one day and so she starts observing everything her sister does. Stasha seems to think that she will be Mengele’s undoing, but as time goes by it becomes more likely that Mengele will be the undoing of both Stasha and Pearl.
Set in 1944 in the World War II Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz, we follow the story through each of Stasha and Pearl’s points of view, alternated and arranged to fit the development of the story. Mengele’s Zoo. With little room for humanity, it was a place I did not like to imagine at all as Konar wrote at one point about a plot of land where the Germans collect the dead and those close to death that is the immediate view of Stasha, Pearl, and everyone else in their compound, further rendering the vision I had of the Zoo unspeakable.
Despite the similarities in their features there are a lot of differences between Stasha and Pearl. In response to Josef when he told the twins to tell him their secret and how it is that one is supposed to know who is who, their mother had simply offered: “Pearl doesn’t fidget.” But in just the first few pages, we definitely learn that their differences go beyond that. Especially as we see during their time in the Zoo. Of the two, Pearl, who is ten minutes older than Stasha, seems to be more of a realist and a complete opposite to her highly imaginative sister.
An odd thing that Stasha and Pearl get to experience in the Zoo is getting close to boys and in Pearl’s case, which should be no surprise to readers, getting close to a boy leads her towards a kiss. Their relationship evolves from simple affection into something more complicated. “Peter was attached to Pearl, and no good could come of that, because while he was a messenger boy, she was going places as soon as the war ended, and possibly even before that.” Following Stasha, we meet a boy called Patient. Stasha and Patient have this in common: they want to kill Mengele. And he is someone that Stasha can tell things that she can’t tell Pearl.
“You are the grand pianos of this place, the mink coats, the caviar. You are valuable! The rest of us – just kazoos, canvas, tinned beans.” This is Bruna, a seventeen-year-old albino captive and habitual thief who recruits Stasha and Pearl. I didn’t like Bruna all that much, but she does make the novel interesting in her own way, making an appearance every now and then and being quite severe with her words even though she’s just being friendly.
I liked the phenomenon of twinhood that the author explored because, while the story goes that twins can feel one another’s pain, the author goes another step further by enabling Stasha and Pearl to almost have some form of telepathy. I liked following Stasha more than I did Pearl because, well, I have a weakness for fictional characters who want to dish out a hefty plate of vengeance and the author has put Stasha on the path of a killer. In the last few chapters, it becomes almost plausible that Stasha could make good on her vow to end Mengele. But my did I like the way how the book came full-circle at the end in an astoundingly unexpected way. See, being born, both actually and figuratively, is just about the biggest theme of this book. So is death. Birth and death, good and evil, young and old, so many yin and yangs magnificently probed.
Experiencing the Zoo through the eyes of Stasha and Pearl wasn’t fun, but with little happenings and bits of knowledge like a set of triplets fighting over a sandwich like starving dogs and children knowing that to be in “the infirmary” means being destined to be loaded onto trucks, l cannot help admire the subtle ways that the author makes readers see the frankly nauseating horribleness of the Zoo. And Josef Mengele, boy did I hate this man with a passion.
This novel explores the evil done to Jews brilliantly, but everything that happens to the two protagonists and the children inside the Zoo forces me to liken this book to an alcoholic drink that is difficult to swallow at times even though I always find myself wanting more. I’m left with no reason to believe that Affinity Konar wrote this book for readers to enjoy because the word joy itself contrasts everything about this full-on revival of a horrible history and a stark naked revelation of man’s darker nature. Rather, it is a book for readers to sit down with, to reflect upon afterwards, and be touched by the knock-down strength of the lionhearted souls that get to live at the end.
Free hardcover copy received from Penguin Random House SA in exchange for a review. Click here to view the book on their site.
|Publisher: Atlantic Books
Date Published: October 6, 2016
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