Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 9, 2017

A Boy in Winter, by Rachel Seiffert #BookReview

Who should I thank for bringing this excellent book to my attention?  I know I read about it somewhere online, but I forgot to note down whose review it was…

I first read Rachel Seiffert when she was nominated for the Booker for her debut The Dark Room, a powerful trio of novellas that tackled the moral responsibility of ordinary Germans under the Third Reich.  Seiffert has continued to tackle confronting themes… Though I’m going to leave it for a little while before I read it,  I’ve just borrowed her next book Afterwards which explores the aftermath of service in the British Army in Northern Ireland and in Kenya.  I need a bit of space after reading A Boy in Winter, in which Seiffert returns to the topic of The Holocaust, this time, in a small village in Ukraine, beginning in November 1941 as the German Operation Barbarossa makes its way across the Soviet Union.

Some might think, why another book about the Holocaust?  People my parents’ age watched in horror as the postwar newsreels showed them what had happened, undiluted by any attempt to explain why or how.  But it’s beginning to look as if successive generations have become desensitised to grainy B&W images, and the rise of the Far Right and Neo-Nazi groups suggests that there is a place for vivid fiction to counter it.  But what Seiffert is interested in, is the ways in which ordinary people grapple with what’s right and wrong when they are caught up in the tide of events.  This theme has an applicability to the present, in so many contemporary contexts…

Otto Pohl is a German engineer who has evaded military service for a regime he and his wife consider contemptible.  Although he is in charge of building a road to further the German advance, he thinks that he is not implicit in the moral culpability of war.  But far from any battlefield he has just heard the gun shots of an atrocity – and realised that he perhaps had had it in his power to have saved some of the victims.  Out of compassion, he had refused to take them as a labour force because they were unused to hard labour in the icy weather.

The first shock has passed, leaving a leaden feeling.  All day he has found himself incapable of working, unable to rid himself of this morning.  Pohl can think of nothing but leaving, and he has sat down at his desk any number of times to write his reasons.  He wrote in rage first.  But what he put on the pages was little more than a tirade.  No one would take such ravings seriously; even he, in all his anger, could see that.  And then, after he’d redrafted, Pohl hit up against doubt and distrust: who to send this to?  He could think of no one he was sure of.

Pohl had to force himself to think clearly, and more cleverly: his request for transfer had to have solid ground to stand on – any accusations he made all the more so.  But this was no day to find clarity, or assurance, and page upon page ended in shreds in his wastepaper basket.  (p.95)

He is not the only one who is shocked.  Mykola is a deserter from the Red Army, now a reluctant assistant in the German police force.  His family, who farm on the marsh, is aghast that he should work for the occupiers, but he thinks he has no choice.  The retreating Reds destroyed the crops and all their farming infrastructure.  Unless he works for the Reichsmark, his family like many others will starve and there will be no money for seeds.  Seiffert shows how over a single chaotic day he is acclimatised to obey orders.  At first unwittingly, and then with increasing dismay, he becomes part of the apparatus with which Ephraim, a Jewish lens-maker, co-operates too, gradually accepting one humiliation after another because he thinks it will help to ‘get it over with’ more quickly and then they will be on their way to resettlement.

Yasia, a young peasant girl in love with Mykola, doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on at first.  She’s come to town, as she usually does, to sell the family’s produce.  Like the rest of the village, she is not much bothered by the registration processes for the Jews.  She’s never had much to do with them, and her life is circumscribed by the slow rhythm of the working day.  She is not a city girl who has witnessed the destruction of Jewish homes and businesses in Germany since the rise of Hitler, and she doesn’t even recognise as Jews, two boys who are out after curfew.  What she sees, is a couple of hungry kids and she has no idea that harbouring them brings peril to her family as well as herself.

Calmly and in dispassionate prose, Seiffert lays out the ways these characters, Pohl, Ephraim, Mykola, Yasia, and the older boy Yankel, all have choices to make, and yet in some ways they have no choice at all.  It’s impossible to read this novel without thinking of the choices faced by people caught up in contemporary events: the war on ISIS; Israel and the Palestinians; the North Korean military; Guantanamo Bay; Manus Island and the Trump administration.   In the novel the existential choice is immediate for some: Mykola takes to stealing because where was the right any longer, where was the wrong in staying alive?  In the real world, well, perhaps the young Australian wife and mother who went with her husband to fight for ISIS recoiled in horror when she saw her son dangling a butchered head, but what choices did she and her children have after that?

In Australia, time and again we have seen former workers such as teachers and doctors from Manus come home, unable to reconcile their attempts to help with the reality of the workplace they’re in.   When they leave, a bit of humanity goes with them, yet their protest is powerful. But we live in a world where speaking out is increasingly dangerous, and even democracies are curtailing freedom of expression in the name of ‘keeping us safe’.  A novel like A Boy in Winter can’t change the past, but by encouraging us to think about ordinary people caught up in these dilemmas, it might help to change the present…

You can read an interview with the author at The Guardian.

Author: Rachel Seiffert
Title: A Boy in Winter
Publisher: Virago Press, 2017
ISBN: 9780349010397
Source: Kingston Library

Available from Fishpond: A Boy in Winter


Responses

  1. She’s an interesting writer. Have you seen ‘Lore’, Cate Shortland’s adaptation of Seiffert’s The Dark Room? I thought it was excellent – a striking film, beautifully shot.

    PS Eric at the Lonesome Reader blog has reviewed A Boy in Winter, so maybe you read about it there?

    • *snap* I borrowed the DVD of Lore today at the library!
      And, Yes, I think it might have been the Lonesome Reader!

  2. Reblogged this on The Logical Place.

  3. I have this one sitting on my shelves waiting to be read. I’d echo Jacqui’s comments about Lore, a very fine adaptation of an excellent book.

    • I’ll watch it over the next day or two:)

  4. That might be the most important point of modern Holocaust fiction, to show us how easily our ‘rights’ are lost, how insidious is the rise of oppressive government. And of course, how complicit we will be seen to have been in the concentration camps maintained by the governments we voted for.

    • Yes, I agree. There’s the ‘never again’ aspect, but also the need to raise awareness that it’s too easy to turn a blind eye.
      I’ve written 8 letters (not counting duplicates e.g. copies of the same one to the PM, attorney general & minister for Justice of a country) for PEN in the last month, ironically two of them to Israel…

  5. I cannot tell a Lie. I must take the blame for writing about ‘A Boy in Winter’ by Rachel Seiffert
    https://anokatony.wordpress.com/2017/10/08/a-boy-in-winter-by-rachel-seiffert-a-brutal-nazi-atrocity-in-ukraine-during-world-war-ii/
    .

  6. Ah, so it was you! Thank you, Tony, it’s a brilliant book and now that I’ve re-read your review I remember why I went straight online to my library’s catalogue and reserved it:) BTW after Jacqui suggested it I borrowed Lore from the library and watched it last night. It’s a very good film indeed!

  7. I must watch Lore. I heard about it a few weeks ago and want to see it.

    • It’s the kind of film I really like, thought-provoking…

  8. […] a quick review for this one: having recently read Seiffert’s new novel A Boy in Winter, (see my review) I decided to hunt out a copy of her 2007 novel, Afterwards.  Like A Boy in Winter and The Dark […]


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