Originally written in French, this is a startling YA read. It opens as Max addresses us directly from his mother’s womb, ‘I don’t know yet what my name will be. Outside, they can’t decide…’
Max is one of the first babies to be born into the Lebensborn eugenics programme, set up in 1933 to breed Aryan babies to repopulate Germany. In a compelling voice that is cruel and all-seeing, Max recounts how his mother was selected for her Nordic looks, and paired with an SS officer for one night. Soon she is forced to leave the baby she loves to be raised by the State. But blond, blue-eyed and ‘perfect’, Max gladly embraces all that the Reich offers. The shiny badges, the black boots, the ideology of a superior race – this anti-hero loves it all. Until one day at school, the fiercely independent Lukas arrives and Max experiences, well, a feeling: an urge to connect.
This very original novel has already won awards and rightly so. It is tightly told, shocking, richly imagined. The cast of characters viewed through Max’s baby-blue eyes is extraordinary in its range. (The intriguing Lukas is based on a real-life Jewish teenager who passed himself off as an Aryan.) It contains stories within stories. It effortlessly evokes the details of life under the Nazi regime as events unfold. It conjures horror, inhumanity and pathos. And yet…
At the outset, Sarah Cohen-Scali asks the reader to ‘feel indulgent towards Max’s flaws, love him, defend him and adopt this orphan of evil.’ This, I confess, I was not able to do. Ultimately, Max – like the regime he represents – does not gain my empathy. However, I wholeheartedly recommend adults, both young (14+) and older, to witness his remarkable story and relish the freedom they have to decide for themselves.