Despite comparisons to The Book Thief and The Boy in The Striped Pyjamas, Sarah Cohen-Scali’s Max stands alone in its take on the horror that was Nazi Germany.
Max was originally released in its native language in 2012, and proceeded to take home 12 prestigious literary awards, including the Prix Sorcières for Young Adult Literature (a prize that in previous years was awarded to none other than J.K. Rowling for the French translation of Harry Potter). Its English translation earlier this year means that we finally get an insight into what Europeans have seemingly known for a while: Sarah Cohen-Scali is a brilliant author.
Max isn’t your average child, destined to enjoy his childhood basking in the innocence of growing up with loving parents who indulge his every whim. Born in 1936 on the Führer’s birthday, as the first of Lebensborn (Fountain of Life), he represents a new era of Nazi propaganda in Hitler’s hostile takeover of Europe.
Like any child born into this program, Max is determined to be the best example of this new Aryan race, a model example to his fellow man. He will follow Hitler to the ends of the Earth and will not once question his position as a dutiful soldier: that is his life’s work, the role for which he was born.
Then comes Lukas, the Polish Jew who somehow slipped through the Nazis rigorous testing procedures. His Aryan good looks attract Max, and he is determined to get closer to this new “Aryan” specimen whose perfection is rivalled only by his own. But getting close to Lukas means testing his own beliefs and the ideologies with which he was raised. What impact will this new found friendship have on the way Max sees the world, and can he leave that all behind if his faith were tested?
Taking on issues of Nazi Germany and the Second World War is not a new phenomenon – as evidenced by the aforementioned titles. While The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas in particular gave a voice to the children behind enemy lines, Cohen-Scali pushes the boundaries even further as she explores how this regime (which actually did exist during the Führer’s reign) impacted and influenced the success of the Nazis as they tried to take over the world.
Even more experimental is the fact that Max tells his tale before his birth, with a vocabulary that exceeds that of many an adult. While it does take some time to get used to (particularly as our protagonist describes his mother’s labour in such intense – and at times, excruciating – detail) such things can be overlooked when you consider the fluidity with which Cohen-Scali writes.
By beginning the book so early in the protagonist’s life, she is able to emphasise how complete the submersion of children within the Nazi ideology was at the time, and so engage her readers even more so. The ability to do this while taking on such a horrific and sensitive topic – especially in young adult fiction – makes her writing unique.
A definite must read for fans of history, YA or literature in general.
Max is available through Text Publishing, and at all good bookstores, both online and offline.
[Editor/Author Note: This review was originally published by The Australia Times. View it here.]