Three grey days

By Kevin Rabalais
Rachel Seiffert’s ‘A Boy in Winter’ chronicles the physical and psychological brutality of war from multiple perspectives

Rachel Seiffert, the Booker Prize–shortlisted author of The Dark Room, coaxes mixed emotions from the reader on nearly every page of her latest work. There is, first of all, a sense of wonder in watching Seiffert juggle the multiple narrative strands of this slim novel. This is despite the bleakness of its subject matter. Set in Ukraine in 1941, weeks after the German invasion and retreat of the Soviet army, A Boy in Winter (Hachette; $29.99) unfolds over the course of three days in which Seiffert chronicles the war’s physical and psychological brutality on characters of disparate nationalities and backgrounds. 

Seiffert’s greatest success here is to make us feel the charge of the violence and destruction her characters must negotiate. Among them is Otto Pohl, a German engineer with “creeping guilt” over his country’s involvement in the war. We follow Yasia, a young woman caught in the midst of invaders “who seemed to her to be liberators – bringers-back of her husband-to-be, their orchard secrecy; all her hopes of motherhood too”. Then there is Yankel, the boy of the title. The novel begins with his attempt to escape, with his younger brother Momik tied to a sack on his back, and avoid capture. Moving deftly through these strands, Seiffert places us within a ravaged landscape reminiscent of the one we find in Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry stories. Early in the novel, for instance, she writes of Pohl, who slowly realises that the roads he has come to build are no more important to his superiors than rounding up the region’s Jews:

The further east, the worse it got: after they crossed the river Bug, the roadside ditches were filled to overflowing, not just with floodwater but with slaughtered Red Army horses, Red Army corpses. Pohl had steeled himself for damage, even for carnage, but not on this scale; and he was unprepared, also, for how long it was simply left in place, to bloat and to decay. It seemed to him a desecration. 

A Boy in Winter proves less successful when Seiffert pulls back from the wreckage and attempts to examine the characters’ emotional lives. “[Ephraim’s] wife has been talking of Rosa’s and Yankel’s younger days, and of her own childhood too,” Seiffert writes. “But Miriam tells most of all about her brother: about when Yaakov left, and all the hopes he had.” These childhoods, and also the aforementioned hopes, go untold, unseen. The novel hints at motivations without being attentive to them. For that reason, A Boy in Winter becomes unsteady, at times repetitive. Too often it unfolds with uncertainty and – surprising, given its setting and subject matter – a lack of urgency.

Seiffert’s characters remain at a distance. This causes the novel to progress much as the German engineer struggles to relate his experience to his wife: “Pohl could write so little of what he really felt in his early letters, he confined himself to practicalities.” Despite an often sharp and cinematic narrative, we never fully experience these characters and their struggles.

Kevin Rabalais

Kevin Rabalais is the author of The Landscape of Desire.

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