Book Reviews

Mischling – Affinity Konar


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This is a terrifying book. Actually, I was so terrified just thinking about reading this book, I waited until I would have a solid chunk of daylight and was in a public place. I was convinced that I would only be able to digest it one chapter at a time. Except that once I did start, I could not stop. This is a book that forces readers to ignore everyone and everything around them, because all that matters is the story it tells. This is the first book I can remember in a long time that I stayed up all night to finish because I was so totally immersed in the writing.

There is a great deal of excellent Holocaust literature. However, with Mishling, Affinity Konar may have established a new standard of excellence for the entire genre, exemplifying the emergence of a new generation of voices. Her narrative follows a set of twin girls, imprisoned in Mengele’s hellish “Zoo” at Auschwitz, and subject to his sadistic experiments. It alternates the voices of the two young girls, and these child narrators provide the perfect balance in expressing a story that is both heart-breaking in its innocence and hauntingly cruel.

A sense of the surreal hovers above the story, a kind of ephemeral filter for this book of fiction that is firmly planted in a real time and place. Konar captures the tone of a world that doesn’t seem like it could exist, but which brutally reminds readers that it did. Her writing reflects the years of research Konar performed in the accuracy and detail of the horrors the twins endure, but stops short of exploring how or why this is happening. Konar writes about the darkness of Auschwitz  and post-war Poland, where children who are imprisoned are subject to terrible brutality, fear, and suffering, while simultaneously a place in which there are art, music, and games. This contrast is furthered in the depiction of the adult characters – the mercilessness of Mengele and his conciliatory Nurse Elna, with the tenderness of the Jewish doctor Miri and the “Twins’ Father” in charge of the Zoo children. Yet Konar’s lyrical prose keeps the book from becoming a caricature of good versus evil. She is at her best as she describes the setting and their actions. She leaves the questioning of motives to others.

Readers’ reactions to this work will likely depend largely on their personal relationship to the Holocaust and familiarity with other Holocaust literature. Konar’s descriptive writing style demands a certain amount of patience and willingness to deeply engage with the characters and stories. Those who prefer a more dispassionate approach to the topic of the Holocaust are less likely to appreciate it. But those who are able to be vulnerable will find their journey with Konar to be unforgettable.

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