Top positive review
An important novel for our times
30 June 2017
There are many good reasons for re-visiting the history of Nazism and the Holocaust, whether as readers or writers of fiction, history or other disciplines. Why did it all happen? Who failed to stop it? How did key historical figures and ordinary people respond day-to-day? What can we do to prevent history repeating itself?
With ‘A Boy In Winter’, author Rachel Seiffert explores the era at the centre of her Booker Prize-shortlisted ‘The Dark Room’. The setting is Nazi-occupied Ukraine: it’s November 1941, and the German army has invaded lands previously held by Soviet forces. Caught in these seismic shifts are ordinary human beings. The story is told from the points of view of several characters: Yankel, the Jewish boy fleeing extermination, with his little brother Momik on his back; Otto Pohl, the German engineer who loathes the Nazis and the war, but ends up here to build a road; Yasia, the farming girl come into town to seek her fiancé Myko who deserted the Russian army and is now in the German-run police...
One of Seiffert’s achievements is to plunge the reader in the characters’ present tense, as events unfold – with all the uncertainties and trust, fears and hopes of individuals who cannot have the benefit of hindsight now afforded us by history. Characters cling with fatal consequences to ordinary thinking in extraordinary, unfathomable times. When Pohl is asked to choose road construction workers among rounded-up Jews, he doesn’t take them, believing the hard labour would bring about their death – he is unaware that he would actually have saved them. When Yasia is moved to help Yankel and Momik, she doesn’t know they’re Jewish. The three children are frightened by the man who is trying to save their lives and who will lose his own as a result. The question to the reader, at these and other dramatic junctures in the story, is ‘What would you have done, faced with the same imperfect information and impossible choices?’
The sensitivity, acuteness, precision and restraint of Seiffert’s prose are key to this effect: it would have been weakened by a more emotionally-charged form of story-telling. Instead, her novel moves us because it pulls us headlong into the real-life complexity of the characters’ predicaments – into the arbitrariness of time and place, of morally sound intentions with dire consequences, and of less virtuous behaviour blessed with moral luck.
The marshes through which the children seek to escape are an apt metaphor for the cruel, shifting quagmire of the atrocious context around them. ‘Even the forests turn to lakes out here in the cold months, roots submerged, branches dipping into the swampy mire. In among the trees as they are, Yasia cannot see far enough to be certain: if their way is clear, or barred already by water. And if they are lost now?’ They will find other human beings, who in turn will have to reach the best possible decision they can – as individuals, as small communities – without any possible knowledge of future contingencies. This makes ‘A Boy In Winter’ an important novel for our times, and always: understanding the past means going beyond the facts, the dates and the horrifying figures, to imagine what being caught in them meant, in order to ward off their re-occurrence.