A literary exploration of Nazi experiments.
Stasha and Pearl are 12 years old when they arrive at Auschwitz. The fact that they are 12 is insignificant to their captors; the fact that they are twins is not. Exceptional by virtue of their birth, they will join other children like themselves as special subjects for Josef Mengele. It’s under his regime that Stasha and Pearl, two halves of the same whole, are transformed into distinct individuals. And it’s at a death-camp concert—just one manifestation of Mengele’s perversity—that Pearl disappears. After her liberation, Stasha struggles through the ruins of the world she once knew, searching for her missing half and hungering for revenge against the monster who ruled Auschwitz. It’s not easy to critique a Holocaust novel. Even if the author didn’t thank particular survivors in her acknowledgements—and she does—it’s difficult to escape the sense that any complaint about form or technique might be read as disparagement of the project of remembering. Certainly, Konar’s fiction draws the reader’s attention to a gruesome paradox: the veneer of science only makes Nazi atrocities more horrifying, just as the meticulous medical attention and occasional kindness Mengele offered his subjects only damn him as a monster. Konar’s fiction also draws the reader’s attention to Konar’s style as a writer. The synopsis at the beginning of this review is accurate, but it’s deceptive if it suggests that plot—or forward momentum of any kind—is an important element of the book. When it comes to craft, Konar is clearly most interested in language, in metaphor and invention. Surely, there are readers who will appreciate this. Some, though, might find that the poetry puts too much distance between the reader and the reality of Auschwitz.
Konar approaches a difficult subject with artistic ambition.