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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

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