Mischling ("mixed-blood" in German) was the legal term used in Nazi Germany to denote persons deemed to have both Aryan and Jewish ancestry. Author Affinity Konar uses the word to lead the reader into the horror chamber of Auschwitz where Josef Mengele’s experiments were “acceptable” because of the lineage of the Mischling victims.
Poetic, ingenious, and exquisitely beautiful while simultaneously agonizing and sad, this is not a novel for sissies. I eschew plot-driven stories, yet I’m more able to stomach hard truths when the narrative compels me to turn the page. I was mesmerized by Konar’s brilliant use of metaphor and language, yet for this reader, the narrative didn’t propel it from a very fine novel to an exceptional one. Mischling deserves accolades for its subject matter, creativity, and prose, yet the narrative thread didn’t emotionally propel me as it might have done. Alternating between twelve-year-old twin sisters Pearl and Stasha’s views of their time in Mengele’s zoo, Mischling brilliantly highlights the emotional damage done by separating the twins as he experiments on them. As the sisters suffer primarily from their isolation from each other, Mengele’s physical and mental abuses seem even more horrific. Konar also paints kaleidoscopic pictures of villains, conflicted workers, and the other sets of twins within the camp with a brush that makes them come alive even as they make the reader want to escape.
Konar’s ear for dialogue is spectacular and when the characters speak, the novel is transformative. Early in their time in Auschwitz, Stasha asks Pearl, “Would you rather be the key to a place that will save us or the weapon that will destroy our enemies?” Her answer, “I’d rather be a real girl,” Pearl said dully. “Like I used to be.” Later Stasha’s friend Felix tells her, “I think you like to see the good in people because there’s been so much bad that you have to believe in good.” Stasha replies, “Do you do that too?” “No. I see the good in knives instead of people. Although there’s really no such thing as a bad knife or a good knife, so long as it cuts.”
I admire Konar’s lack of sentimentality in her portraits of the many suffering children and even of Mengele, yet, I found myself comparing my connection to them to my deep and abiding empathy for each character in Anthony Doerr’s All the Light You Cannot See. Doerr created a tour de force with characters that still haunt me. Konar created a fascinating glimpse of the people and horror of Auschwitz, but for me, it isn’t a masterwork. I recommend it highly for its writing, however. Thinking of Konar’s name, Affinity, and its dictionary definition as a spontaneous or natural liking or sympathy for someone or something, sometimes expressed as a kinship, I can acknowledge that Affinity Konar created a world that gave this reader a sympathy for the characters and their plight, yet I didn’t develop the kinship needed to deem this a masterpiece. Still, I admire Konar’s skill in making Mengele real, yet never allowing him to highjack the story. The novel rightly belongs to the twins and to those real children and caretakers who suffered through Mengele’s brutality and whose lives inspired Konar’s well-researched novel. I’m grateful for Konar’s telling of their stories, yet, there were times when I could barely turn the page.
Summing it Up: Mischling exquisitely bears witness to the atrocities perpetrated by Josef Mengele at Auschwitz, but reading of the abuses suffered by so many children in Mischling is almost impossible to endure. Twins Pearl and Stasha’s dual narratives offer prize-worthy, lyrical language and ask deep questions about forgiveness, yet this novel is only for those able to stomach those horrors.
Rating: 4 stars
Category: Fiction, Gourmet, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition, Book Club
Publication date: September 6, 2016
Interview with the Author: http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/authors/interviews/article/70631-unpacking-the-mengele-monster-pw-talks-with-affinity-konar.html
What Others are Saying:
“Mischling is a paradox. It’s a beautiful novel about the most odious of crimes, it’s a deeply researched act of remembrance that somehow carries the lightness of a fairy tale, and it’s a coming-of-age story about children who aren’t allowed to come of age. If your soul can survive the journey, you’ll be rewarded by one of the most harrowing, powerful, and imaginative books of the year.” – Anthony Doerr, Author of All the Light We Cannot See
Publishers Weekly: http://www.publishersweekly.com/978-0-316-30810-6