Max (by Sarah Cohen-Scali, translated by Penny Hueston) is creepy. Beautifully written. Translated in flawlessly idiomatic English. And seriously creepy.
A well-researched work of historical fiction for upper YA readers*, the book tells the story of the eponymous Max, aka Konrad von Kebernsol, a product of the once-secret, actual Nazi Lebensborn program (literally, fountain of life, but in reality, an Aryan eugenics project). Max is the only book I’ve ever read in which the narrator is a fetus, at least at the start. The narrator’s voice is spot on, although unusual for even a newborn–cold, wise-acre, utterly convinced, preternaturally mature, and yet heartbreakingly naive… It’s the kind of voice that gets into a reader’s head and permeates one’s thoughts long after leaving the book.
The author takes Max from shortly before his fictional birth–which he delays so that he can be born on the Fuehrer’s own birthday–to the age of nine. The book begins at the height of Nazi strength and success in the mid-1930s and goes through the downfall of the regime at the end of World War II. While the plotting in the book feels somewhat forced in the last section as the war grinds to its end and Cohen-Scali drives her way a bit too willfully towards her desired moral conclusion, the first part of the book is much tighter.
I found it impossible to put down. Thus, it’s no surprise that Max has won a number of awards, including France’s major award in children’s literature, Prix Sorcières in 2013, as well as being shortlisted for GLLI’s 2019 Translated YA Book Prize. For those who doubt the book’s historical underpinnings, there is a small but welcome section on secondary sources as back matter.
Cohen-Scali’s chilling book reads like a dystopian novel, but it is not a fantasy. This program was real. Its horrors took place. Let the world beware lest we revisit this awful terrain.
Which, of course, is Cohen-Scali’s point.
Translated from French by Penny Hueston
Roaring Books Press, 2017
Read reviews at Publishers Weekly and Kirkus
Read about the Lebensborn program at Wikipedia and the Jewish Virtual Libary.
*Warning: multiple mature topics covered
Award-winning opera singer Nanette McGuinness is the translator of over 40 books and graphic novels for children and adults from French and Italian into English, including the well-known Geronimo Stilton Graphic Novels. Two of her latest translations, Luisa: Now and Then (Humanoids, 2018; a2019 ALA Barbara Gittings Literature Award Honor Book, PUBLISHERS WEEKLY’s 2018 Best Summer Reads and NPR’s 2018 Guide to Great Reads ) and California Dreamin’: Cass Elliot Before the Mamas & the Papas (First Second Books, 2017) have been chosen as YALSA’s Great Graphic Novels for Teens. Her most recent translation is Superman Isn’t Jewish (But I Am…Kinda) (Humanoids, 2018).