Thank you Random House Canada for sending a copy of Mischling; a novel that takes an interesting and inside look at “Mengele’s Zoo” in 1944 Auschwitz. I don’t think that I’m giving away the plot by admitting that there are very few triumphs to be witnessed within this novel. The subject matter alone ensures that the reader is in for a tough ride, and your hope as you embark on this journey is that the author delivers the information with a soft hand. As difficult as it is to read any account of the Zoo, the details here are mercifully limited. For that, I remain ever thankful.
Mischling revolves around identical twins Pearl and Stasha Zagorski. Forever inseparable and sweetly smitten with their adoring mother and grandfather, these young girls were destined for a life of secret languages and sisterly games. Their closeness was only matched by their uncanny ability to read one another’s thoughts, and they relished the promise that their lives would always be entwined. Little did they know that these bonds would also be their undoing at the hands of a madman.
Upon entrance to Auschwitz, the girls are ushered into the clutches of Dr. Josef Mengele, a man whose repugnant fascination with identical twins is widely known. As a reader, you anticipate the suffering that these girls will face, and this alone makes the novel seem like a palpable, menacing force. In one sense, the novel does not shed light on new atrocities. For anyone who knows anything about Mengele, the horrors of his “practice” are nothing new. At the hands of Mengele, twins were systematically tortured with everything from diseased injections to broken bones and wildly unnecessary surgeries. The more outlandish the hypothesis, the more likely Mengele would try to outdo his last experiment. And when it came to the workings of the Zoo, Pearl and Stasha were no exception. How would they endure? Badly, as it turns out, and this comes as no surprise to anyone.
Eventually, the camp is liberated and the twins find themselves going in separate directions. One with a band of prisoners on foot, the other to an off site medical facility. Each has her own mountains to traverse, and the looming question is whether or not the two will be reunited.
Now, for a difficult review. Let me start by saying that I wanted to give this novel 5 stars. With the subject matter alone, how could you not? Alas, I found myself stuck in prose that was far too musical for the subject matter, and a plot that lagged at the halfway point. The sentences became thick with description, which crippled any trajectory that the novel had. Once the camp was liberated, the girls’ meandering seemed to go hand in hand with the sudden lack of plot advancement. It seemed as though the story became muddled. While the girls developed interesting friendships and the supporting characters helped, the book lost its direction.
One character that is definitely worth noting is Dr. Miri. Miri was a “doctor” who aided Mengele in the Zoo (clearly against her will), and whose acts of mercy when the doctor’s back was turned were as brave as they were wrenching. Her acts within the confines of the Zoo would haunt her forever, and I found myself wanting to know more about her. Dr. Miri could have had a novel devoted to her heartbreak and it would have filled 1,000 pages. I have read that Dr. Miri is based on an actual woman from Mengele’s offices, which means that her story is out there. This is a woman who deserves attention.
The other item that I found to be troublesome with this novel was how it closed. After all the searching and wandering of the twins, it was one of the most abrupt endings that I’ve encountered in a very long time. Just as emotional closure is at hand, it felt like the story was snapped shut. After spending so much time with the twins, I was anticipating a little more. Perhaps the weight of the story became (understandably) too much.
Overall, I have to say that even though this novel deals with a very dark period in history, this could be a read for a teen audience. It’s a history lesson without the gruesome details, and illustrates the power of the mind and the potential to overcome the worst of circumstances. Rooting for kindness and humanity is always worthwhile.
3 stars for Mischling.