What often marks us out as different in the eyes of others can result in our being subjected to the worst forms of cruelty and abuse. Mischling depicts this to devastating effect but Affinity Konar doesn’t allow that to overwhelm her novel, instead showing us the resilience and resources drawn on by its victims, and focussing on the survivors.
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.
It is the story of twelve-year-old twins Pearl and Stasha, who upon arrival at Auschwitz are separated from their Mama and grandfather Zayde and taken to Josef Mengele’s so-called Zoo, the subjects of horrific experimentation. Mischling is heartrending and devastating, an effect only heightened by the dream-like quality given it by Affinity Konar’s beautiful prose, imagery and description more reminiscent of fairytales, the use of music, grandfather’s toasts, and the tricks and childhood games that help the twins through many ordeals in the notorious camp, including separation, and later search for each other and longed-for reunion. (One such game devised by Zayde called The Classification of Living Things could work as an alternative title for Mischling.)
Mischling finds beauty in the ugliest of places and hope and friendship where people are under extreme duress. Even if you are reluctant to read yet another Holocaust novel, I’ll let Stasha explain why Mischling deserves your attention. Here she is remembering a poppy her Mama once drew: “Sometimes, when things are too unbearable, the poppy threatens to multiply itself… I hope I never have cause to see a whole field of poppies like that.”
Mischling by Affinity Konar is published by Atlantic Books and is out now as an ebook and will be available as an audiobook and in hardback from 2 February. It is available from Amazon UK, Audible UK, Foyles, Hive (supporting your local independent bookshop) and Waterstones. You can find out more about the author on her Author Website, Facebook page or on Twitter.
My thanks to Lovereading and the publisher for sending me a review copy.