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A Boy in Winter: A Novel Hardcover – August 1, 2017
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**A New York Times Notable Book of 2017**
“The power of [Seiffert’s] writing comes not from emotional manipulation or verbal fireworks but from her marshaling of the sort of visual detail that makes her settings feel almost tangible, and from the bonds she builds between her wary characters who, like it or not, must accept their need for one another. Her first novel, The Dark Room, which was a finalist for the 2001 Man Booker Prize, bears a certain resemblance to A Boy in Winter…But this new novel is even stronger. While retaining the muscularity that has always distinguished her prose, she has allowed these disparate portraits to migrate and meld, producing one interactive, consolidating vision. As the stories of Yankel and Yasia, Otto and Mykola, Ephraim and Miryam collide and overlap in one condensed, disastrous three-day time frame, their mingled plights merge in multidimensional, expressive collage….With A Boy in Winter, Seiffert has unleashed literature’s unique power to analyze history’s scroll, to let fiction judge.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Halfway through Rachel Seiffert’s new novel, when the SS death squad starts shooting, most readers will shudder. They all know, they think, what is coming: not just a gruesome depiction of the Nazis’ murderous campaign against European Jews, but the Holocaust narrative itself, by now a well-stocked shelf. It is a mark of Seiffert’s gifts that her slender tale, A Boy in Winter, upends these expectations….Ms. Seiffert’s prose is not showy, but graceful and precise. The misery of the dank streets is relieved by flashes of light and humanity….Most literature of the ‘third generation’ after the war explores the impact on its descendants. Ms. Seiffert’s fictions are different: they inhabit the events themselves. Yet from all too familiar horror they swerve into the unexpected, into a new story—a gleam in the darkness that readers haven’t seen before.” —The Economist
“Swift and terrifying….Seiffert is such a patient and poised storyteller that, even though history tells us otherwise, like all the characters in the book, we read toward its terrible climax believing — perhaps it will not happen. As in her other two novels and story collection, Seiffert packs a great deal into a small amount of space. Her prose style resembles a cello onstage played in the pitch dark. Sonorous and somber and yet what use it makes of just a few notes….Eventually, what this book has been building toward happens, and there are few passages in modern literature as harrowing and as necessary to read….[Seiffert] has done a tremendous service to memory, and she has given us not a way out, but deeper in, where we must go.” —The Boston Globe
“Seiffert’s contribution to the ever growing shelf of Holocaust fiction provides an emotional close-up of the experiences of several characters in a small Ukrainian town on the day the German troops arrive to round up the Jews, the day the nightmare begins in earnest….This novel allows the reader to imagine and to empathize, to have a vivid moral experience, while managing to avoid the surfeit of violent, horrific detail that can sometimes result in a kind of genocide porn. All the notes of the Holocaust song, including the rare ray of hope, are played in this spare, fast-moving novel.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Effectively captures the looming horror of the Holocaust….A quietly persuasive work; highly recommended.” —Library Journal *starred review*
“Seiffert’s characterization is well-realized, with a Nazi Sturmbannführer (military officer) portrayed with more complexity than archetypal villainy. The novel truly shines in its offering of diverse, authentic perspectives…. Seiffert does provides more successful instances of kindness as well as hope in her accomplished literary work.” —Booklist
“The primal energy in this novel is a moral sore that will never heal … [a] fine novel.” —John Sutherland, The Times
“Seiffert’s cool tone never wavers—her spare, beautiful prose is a joy to read.” —Helen Dunmore, The Guardian
“Rachel Seiffert’s new novel A Boy in Winter stretches over only three days, through which you encounter all the emotions of the time, horror and instinct for survival, family loyalty, and above all perhaps, bravery.” —James Naughtie, BBC World TV
“Spare, elegant and devastating.” —Psychologies
“Completely captures those times in a vivid, precise, captivating and terrible way.” —Philippe Sands, author of East West Street
“This is not a gruesome depiction of the Nazis’ murderous campaign against European Jews but an upending of those dire expectations. We see light in the darkness and humanity in the inhumane. After the horror there is hope and a new story begins…. In a period of just three days, we experience every emotion possible rendered to us in Seiffert’s gorgeous prose. The times are captured vividly and terribly. I had to remind myself that I was actually reading and not experiencing what I read. We cannot say that about many authors.” —Amos Lassen
About the Author
RACHEL SEIFFERT's first novel, The Dark Room, was short-listed for the Booker Prize, won the Los Angeles Times First Fiction Prize, and was the basis for the acclaimed motion picture Lore. She was one of Granta's Best of Young British Novelists in 2003; in 2004, Field Study, her collection of short stories, received an award from PEN International. Her second novel, Afterwards, and her third, The Walk Home, were both long-listed for the Orange/Bailey's Prize for Fiction. In 2011, she received the E. M. Forster Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Seiffert's books have been published in eighteen languages. She lives in London with her family.
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This will be a very brief review because of my concern for spoilers; in fact one of the things that keeps you so nervous and biting your nails while reading this book comes from the anxiety of wondering what will happen next.
Therefore, let me just say that this story takes place in 1941 in a small village in the Ukraine. The Germans have taken over the town and complete pandemonium and panic has set in. The Jews are being herded off into trains, neighbors are fearful and turning on each other and everyone is wondering what the future will bring and if they will survive.
There are just a few main characters we follow closely - a Jewish father named Ephraim who is forced into one of those trains with his wife and daughter. He is worried about his two missing little boys; the eldest one named Yankel. Another character is Otto Pohl, a German engineer who is being forced to build a road for a cause he believes to be criminal. We also have a good-hearted and seemingly naive young Ukrainian woman named Yansia who is waiting for her lover to come home from the war.
And that's all I want to say about the plot other than the main part of the story takes place over a mere few days in time. I was happy that there was an Epilogue that takes us into the future.
I have read a lot of books about the Holocaust and WWII and about the horrors inflicted upon innocents under SS and Nazi domination and cruelty. If written well - and this one is - these are tough books to read because you can empathize with the characters and that's obviously not a comfortable place to be, even in the comfort of a reading chair at home. I think it's important that we read these books and recognize just what so-called decent human beings are capable of doing to each other.
Even though I've read many books in this genre, this one stood out for me, in particular in regards to one storyline. Again, I don't want to give away a spoiler and this isn't one, but part of the story is that the father Ephraim is on the train with his wife and little girl and he is wishing that his two sons were with him since he is worried about them. He had thought himself safe in his village even though his wife had talked about her brother going to Palestine before the war. We know from the first page that Ephraim's two young sons had fled moments before the capture of his father - his father just knows they are not on the train.
As the train ride continues, Ephraim begins to ponder his own decisions and he understands the pessimistic future for himself and his wife and daughter and he questions his own prior actions in not leaving. He also wonders if it was a good thing that his sons were not with him on the train. But is it? Does that mean they are dead? But is it better that they might still be alive somewhere and maybe will be safe? Or is it better that they were with him even though he is now helpless in helping them? It is a horrible, horrible moral dilemma. A different sort of Sophie's Choice.
I thought this was brilliantly done and my heart went out to Ephraim as I felt myself in his position and the horror that he must've felt. But the book itself is a lot more than just Ephraim's tale; there are other characters that face their own horrors and ethical conundrums although it was Epharim's tale that will always remain with me.
Recommended. It's a quick read, I think well-written and extremely moving.
In spite of the atrocities that the Germans are engaged in, the author does not portray them as cardboard characters—at least the central ones—no small achievement on her part. One example: Pohl, the German engineer, wrestles with what is taking place and his part in it with continuous soul-searching. His wife Dorle, who writes letters to him stating her views, is even more vocal in condemning what he is doing. In a conversation between Arnold, an SS officer and Pohl, Arnold appears to be conflicted about what he has to do and says: Where the light shines strongest, there is always shadow.” He apparently is looking for some kind of support and/or assurance from Pohl that he understands that Arnold hates his orders too and reminds Pohl that “This will soon be over.”
In all this horror, there are patches of beautiful tenderness and love. For example, the passages in the novel where the older boy Yankel has whittled a collection of wooden trees, toys for his younger brother to play with: “The small one has made a tight group of the trees now; there are enough to add up to a small grove—far more than could fit in both their pockets—so Yashia thinks the older one must have spent some of the long day’s hiding in whittling more for him.”
The end of this sad story slipped up on me. I will ponder it for a long time to come. Ms. Seiffert asks a serious question: if we stand by as witnesses and do nothing, don't we share the guilt with the perpetrators? But she makes also profound statements about both love in a dark place and compromise.
A good, good novel.