I haven’t read Heather Morris’s other books about Auschwitz, so perhaps my review of this one is a little unfair. I have, however, read the first-hand accounts written by the survivors Primo Levi and Miklós Nyiszli. Primo Levi’s works are beautiful, yet none the less shocking for it. Miklós Nyiszli’s Auschwitz (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/3…) is the most harrowing book I ever read. It is only 100 pages; after 50 of unremitting brutality, cruelty and evil, I set it aside for three months; it was that bad. But he bore witness.
So, when I happened across Three Sisters, I hesitated. Auschwitz is not unique (think Pol Pot, Cultural Revolution, Stalin’s purges and famines) in terms of numbers, but it is unique in sheer, unvarnished evil, and I wasn’t sure I had the stomach for another journey into the depths of human depravity.
I needn’t have worried. Compared to the two victim’s accounts above, this was a saccharine Auschwitz. Yes, there are corpses, yes, there is anti-Semitism, yes, there are murders. But, unlike the above accounts, I never felt I was in the victims’ heads. I didn’t feel the unceasing hunger, the lassitude, the combination of boredom and terror; I didn’t feel the cutting cold in winter, didn’t smell the stench of death in summer, didn’t hear the screams.
The problem was structural. When I got to the latter pages, I found out that the story is not merely real, but that the book is an almost journalistic recounting of the facts. It is told by an omniscient narrator who tells us what’s inside the protagonists’ heads (with frequent changes of points of view), but only very rarely shows us. As a result, there is a distance between the reader and the protagonists, a distance in space, because I never felt I was in the same room, and in time, because of quite a few neologisms and anachronisms (people get “tasked”; one of the sisters gives the finger – a modern American gesture rather than a 1940s Slavic one).
The other problem with a strict adherence to the facts is that there is very little narrative tension. The sisters are in a death camp, yet there is never any doubt they will survive. They are faced with very few hard moral choices: there is but a single incident where the sisters’ survival is at the cost of someone else’s, and they only realise that after the fact. Yes, they feel awful, but there is no moral quandary. There is one bad guy, a particularly nasty kapo, but his part is peripheral.
The second part of the book, after the sisters are released, is dull. What could have been a ten-page epilogue is 120 pages of …and then … and then storytelling. As journalism, it’s hardly compelling. As fiction, I struggled to turn the page. No bad guys, not moral dilemmas, and very few obstacles. It’s as if life rolled out a red carpet for the sisters’ adult lives, and they walked down it.
The Holocaust must be remembered. As a contribution to keeping that memory alive, Three Sisters is useful. As a work of fiction, and as a reminder of the depths to which humankind can sink, I found it a disappointment.