From page 94
One of the most sympathetic characters in Rachel Seiffert’s 2014 novel, The Walk Home, is Lindsey, a young woman who flees religious tension and a hard-line father in Ireland for love and a new start in Scotland. But over time, and despite her best-laid plans, she comes to worry about her son’s newfound loyalties, and to feel marooned in her Glasgow tower-block. At one desperate point she finds herself fuelled by “dreams of elsewhere”.
This isn’t Seiffert’s only novel to feature trapped or constrained people wishing for safer surroundings and happier circumstances. Indeed, the British writer recently explained that all her fiction follows the lives of those who were born on the wrong side of history. Her latest novel, A Boy in Winter, has Seiffert continuing this exploration in original and impressive ways. A stark, spare, yet profoundly moving tale set in Nazi-occupied Ukraine, the book makes us feel for and side with characters who find themselves floundering in a hostile world – on the wrong side of history and in one of the darkest chapters of humanity.
The novel plays out over several days in November 1941. A small Ukrainian town is blanketed in fog in the early hours of the morning. Through the mist comes more grey – the field-grey uniforms of the Wehrmacht. The peace is shattered by convoys of jeeps and trucks thundering down streets and soldiers breaking down doors. The grey is variegated by black-clad SS officers. “All Jews, outside!” they bellow. “All of you!” Hauled out and rounded up, the Jews are then marched to an old brick factory to await “Transport” and “Resettlement”. Among them is Ephraim and his wife and daughter. His two sons are missing and as the situation becomes fraught and his fate unknown, he wishes they were all together “in their time of need”.
Their agony intensifies, and we see how the boys are better off outside than in. Thirteenyear-old Yankel – the eponymous “boy” – and his younger brother Momik are sheltered by a Ukrainian farm girl and saved by a German engineer. But then after a while they are back in the open and on the run. In the book’s unbearably tense final act, both boys take their chances on the marshes, where until now partisans have held out against the invaders. But is it truly safe ground? And if not, is there anywhere left to run to?
Seiffert has written about the Nazis and the Holocaust before, in her 2001 debut novel The Dark Room. That book consisted of three novellas, each of them loosely connected by an aspect or episode of the Third Reich. A Boy in Winter is as devastating and as convincing, but it has an advantage of being more fluid. Granted, it too unfolds in sections, with Seiffert jumping between character perspectives and predicaments. But in this book there are no discrete segments: characters stand apart and also mingle, cooperating or collaborating; lives dovetail and collide, the better ones revolving around the plight of the two boys. The most memorable characters are those who stand up to be counted. Yasia, whose family endured Stalin’s collectivisation, anticipates greater brutality from her country’s new invaders. “We just have to live to see them gone again,” her boyfriend Mykola tells her. But when she encounters the boys she realises that not everyone is being given the chance to live, and so she risks all and offers assistance. Equally benevolent is the book’s sole good German, Otto Pohl. Tasked with building a huge road “to serve the Reich and its expansion” through the vast, blasted, corpse-strewn wetlands, Pohl silently rails against the Führer for his “over-reaching madness” and vocally protests at having to select Jews for forced labour teams. Only much later – when it is too late – does he discover that having a conscience brings consequences.
Novelistic treatment of Nazi crimes is not for the faint-hearted. No depicted violence can be deemed gratuitous. Around Seiffert’s halfway mark, our feeling of queasy dread starts to harden into finite shock and repulsion by the enacted horror. “Better them than us,” is Mykola’s coping mechanism.
And yet Seiffert doesn’t go far enough. Acts of brutality are largely implied, diluted or outlined. What should be graphic is instead atmospheric. What should be wrenching – think Sebastian Faulks’s little Jewish boys in Charlotte Gray – is merely worrying.
This is, undoubtedly, a powerful novel which highlights the kindness of strangers. However, Seiffert could have hit much harder by being more candid about the evil that men do.
Malcolm Forbes is an independent reviewer based in Edinburgh. Latest mystery published under the alter ego of John Banville finds a doctor on the snowy streets of Prague in 1599, uncovering the body of the emperor’s mistress. Stern is tasked with finding the culprit by none other than Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor.
Prague Nights Benjamin Black Viking, June 1