– I received a free copy in exchange for an honest review. –
Pearl is in charge of: the sad, the good, the past.
Stasha must care for: the funny, the future, the bad.
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.
I chose this book because…
I’ve heard a lot about this book, although I can’t recall where, when, or what, and now I’m finally getting around to reading it! After reading the blurb, the first book I thought of was All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Because I’m interested in historical fiction like that, I’m interested in this book.
Upon reading it…
The writing was surreal and lyrical. I got that feeling right away when the book began with Stasha, who already had an awareness of her twin Pearl whilst they were still in their mother’s womb. This book focuses on the unique connection that these twin sisters have to each other, and the conflict (besides the horrors of World War II) was the interest Josef Mengele had in what would happen to the twins when they were separated.
The extremity of Stasha and Pearl’s connection felt more absurd than strong, so this influenced the way I was able to immerse myself in the story. I mean, yes, I can see how twins would have a special bond that other siblings don’t have, but having an awareness before birth was a little too much for me. (There are some other unrealistic examples of their connection too, but I don’t want to give too much away.) Throughout the story, the twins seemed to have this sort of ESP for each other that I wasn’t quite sold by. It felt a little too convenient for the storyline. Additionally, the ending felt too tidy.
However, I understand that stories aren’t always meant to be realistic; they are fiction after all. Perhaps this exaggerated connection will help some readers feel more deeply for the twins, but it didn’t do that for me.
Another thing about this strange awareness these twelve-year-old twins had was that they somehow observed many of the major events of World War II, which felt unrealistic and felt like parts of the story were spread too thin. But on the other hand, if the story was more contained, I don’t think the surreal and lyrical style could support an engaging pace for the story.
Despite my criticism, the writing itself was good, and there were certainly parts that made me feel things.
As I said earlier, I heard a lot of good things about this book, but after finishing the book myself and reading some Goodreads reviews, I realised that there’s a split with this book. Some people really liked it, and some people really didn’t. People who liked it liked the lyrical writing. People who didn’t like it found the lyrical writing inappropriate. I love literary fiction, but for some reason, the lyrical style didn’t work for me here. Maybe it’s because of the subject matter. Because opinions of this book are so split, if you are interested in this book, I would recommend going for it anyway and making a decision for yourself!
(more like 3.5)
Have you ever had to live with the best part of yourself adrift, stationed at some unknowable distance?
It was pathetic of me to try, I know, but I had always believed in the world’s ability to right itself, just like that, with a single kindness.
That was one of the biggest stings of this sisterhood—pain never belonged to just one of us.
For as long as the light lived, the shadows endured.
If there was ever a place where the dead might still feel their tortures, it had to be the Zoo.
I wanted to understand what music meant when two people held each other and moved through the minutes with affection.
I told him that I’d do as I liked in terms of kissing. He said that he would never try to stop me from doing so.
Work would never set us free, despite what they’d promised. But beauty? Yes, I thought, beauty might see us past the gates.
I think you like to see the good in people because there’s been so much bad that you have to believe in good. 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.
Because you had no power over the fact that I was born, you took from me what I was born with—the person who was my love, the half that made me entire—and now I am lessened into this dull thing, a divided person who will live forever, wandering in search of some nothing, some nowhere, some no-feeling, to mend my pain.
Watching this chaos from the window of the infirmary, I wondered if a bullet or a scream could better pierce the sky.
They stuttered into the distance while Feliks and I played possum. “Is it safe to be alive now?” he whispered.
“No one’s looking back.” He laughed bitterly. “The whole world will never look back. And if they do, they’ll probably say that it never really happened.”
As I listened, I watched the velvet blackness of my closed eyelids. If I closed my eyes too suddenly and too tightly, I could see small sparks alight on that velvet, like footlights at the perimeter of a stage.
We could not even be sure what duties had to be divided on the journey ahead. Someone was going to have to find shelter, someone was going to have to find food, maps, shoes, hope.
I will be honest—nothing in this wild story should have sounded correct to me, but I didn’t want to doubt. It felt good to believe in something for once. It made me feel real.
There may not be happiness, but there is a hope that may impersonate happiness, if only for a small while.
But for my part—I knew I wanted to forgive. My tormentor would never ask for my forgiveness—this was certain—but I knew it might be the only true power I had left, a means to spare myself his grasp, the one that I felt close on me every morning when I woke.
I decided not to take anything as a sign anymore. It was my responsibility—not fate’s…
Eventually, the watchfulness of Horse’s eye convinced me that it was safe to sleep. A simple belief, the kind I needed.
You were better than the best parts of us. You were who I wished the world could be.
I did my best, but I realized that those who had not seen what we’d seen would never truly understand.
I want it to be you and me, no one else.
But I’d hoped for life too. I hadn’t known this, though, till I saw nothing of it.
“She has other identifying marks,” I’d say. “If she still has hair, she wears a blue pin in it. If she still has legs, they are knobby at the knee. You can’t miss her—if you’ve seen her.”
Have you ever seen the best part of yourself stationed at a measurable distance? A distance you’d never thought possible after so much parting? If so, I’m sure you’re aware of the joys of this condition.
“Let’s try again,” Stasha said. I didn’t need to finish her sentence. I knew what she meant—we had to learn to love the world once more.