Friday, 14 October 2016

Book review: MISCHLING by Affinity Konar


Author: Affinity Konar
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company
Read: October 2016

Synopsis (Goodreads):

"One of the most harrowing, powerful, and imaginative books of the year" (Anthony Doerr) about twin sisters fighting to survive the evils of World War II.

Pearl is in charge of: the sad, the good, the past.

Stasha must care for: the funny, the future, the bad.

It's 1944 when the twin sisters arrive at Auschwitz with their mother and grandfather. In their benighted new world, Pearl and Stasha Zagorski take refuge in their identical natures, comforting themselves with the private language and shared games of their childhood.

As part of the experimental population of twins known as Mengele's Zoo, the girls experience privileges and horrors unknown to others, and they find themselves changed, stripped of the personalities they once shared, their identities altered by the burdens of guilt and pain.

That winter, at a concert orchestrated by Mengele, Pearl disappears. Stasha grieves for her twin, but clings to the possibility that Pearl remains alive. When the camp is liberated by the Red Army, she and her companion Feliks--a boy bent on vengeance for his own lost twin--travel through Poland's devastation. Undeterred by injury, starvation, or the chaos around them, motivated by equal parts danger and hope, they encounter hostile villagers, Jewish resistance fighters, and fellow refugees, their quest enabled by the notion that Mengele may be captured and brought to justice within the ruins of the Warsaw Zoo. As the young survivors discover what has become of the world, they must try to imagine a future within it.

A superbly crafted story, told in a voice as exquisite as it is boundlessly original, Mischling defies every expectation, traversing one of the darkest moments in human history to show us the way toward ethereal beauty, moral reckoning, and soaring hope. 

My thoughts:

I realised when I chose this book that it would be a difficult rather than enjoyable read, as it deals with a truly horrific part of history. Having had the privilege to meet several holocaust survivors through my work and having talked to them about their experiences, I have always been humbled by the human survival instinct and the resilience and courage to move on and rebuild their lives. I was hoping to find the same message in the pages of Mischling. Pearl voices this sentiment when she reflects on her twin sister Stasha’s desire for revenge on her Nazi tormentors, whilst she herself feels very differently.

“The whole world might be obsessed with revenge. But for my part – I knew I wanted to forgive. My tormentors would never ask for forgiveness – this was certain – but I knew it might be the only true power I had left [...]”


“Forgiving did not restore my family; it did not remove my pain or blunt my nightmares. It was not a new beginning. It was not, in the slightest, an end. My forgiveness was a constant repetition, an acknowledgement of the fact that I still lived [...] In my forgiveness, their failure to obliterate me was made clear.”

Through Pearl, the author explores the psyche of someone who has been to the very brink of death, glimpsed the worst mankind can serve up, but manages to step back from the abyss and move on, despite the ultimate price that has to be paid later. To me, Pearl was the very essence of the book, the one voice which kept me reading even when the story became very difficult. Stasha, her twin and her polar opposite, offered the other perspective, although I never fully managed to get into Stasha’s head or understand what made her tick. I admit that due to the sheer horrors explored in the book, I was often tempted to abandon it, and it haunted me in my nightmares.

What was missing for me was a sense of time and place. Perhaps this was due to the fact that the main characters are children, whose sense of reality is blurry at times. I found it difficult to visualise both the setting as well as the supporting characters, and the whole atmosphere took on a slightly surreal, often bizarre quality in the vein of Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  Perhaps it was the author’s intention to cloak the horrors in a kaleidoscope of peculiar, nightmarish images. However, I found that for me the cost of this approach was the authenticity of the main characters, and I often found myself floundering as I tried to follow the storyline. By masking the perpetrators and their victims in bizarre imagery, giving it the atmosphere of a freakish travelling carnival, it made it difficult for me to truly grasp its depth and meaning.

To sum it all up, this is definitely not a book for the faint-hearted, due to the horrific subject matter. Nor will its style work for everyone, as the mixed reviews which have been posted on Goodreads clearly show. Although I managed to glimpse the occasional insight through Pearl’s voice, I belong to the group of readers who found the book difficult due to its writing style. This is by no means a criticism on the author, who has obviously done her research and knows her subject matter very well, , but simply a personal preference. Readers who enjoy historical fiction, especially set in WWII, should definitely pick it up and make up their own minds.

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. Please note that the final product may vary slightly from the one I have reviewed.

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