A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert review

Hi everyone! Today I’m talking about my second novel off the Women’s Prize longlist, A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert. The plot follows several characters over the course of three days during the German occupation of Ukraine in late 1941. These include Yankel, a Jewish boy who wishes to protect his younger brother whatever the cost, Yasia, a Ukrainian teenager who finds herself caught up in the Nazi occupation of her town and German road engineer Otto Pohl, who has severe misgivings about the regime he works for.

Seiffert’s language is incredibly atmospheric. She brings to life this quiet Ukrainian town suddenly torn apart by war, and her descriptions of it highlights the feelings of its inhabitants. There are constant references to mist, darkness and coldness which reflects the darkness of the times. There is also a chapter halfway through where Seiffert describes the silence, a silence that lingers on everything, that is weighty and stifling. It is a beautifully written sequence, capturing perfectly the tense and almost suffocating nature of wartime. The language and imagery used is not very flowery, but its’ simplicity is very evocative and places you in the characters’ shoes.

The multi-voiced narrative is also put to great use, allowing the reader to understand the different perspectives within the community. Just within Yasia’s family we see a whole range of varying emotions. Yasia’s father welcomes the Germans, believing things will get better as they are no longer under Russian rule, while her fiancé is more cynical. Not to mention Pohl who works for the Nazis though secretly abhors them. By giving various characters a voice, Seiffert effectively provides a snapshot of a complex and terrifying period of history. As a reader you sympathise with both sides of the argument, those who like the Germans for removing Stalinist troops and those who believe they are not much better. Therefore there is no cliche good or bad, but rather people simply trying to survive in difficult circumstances.

I also liked how you are placed in the middle of the action from the start. The opening chapter is Yankel and his brother fleeing their family home, knowing full well they must not be caught. There is no info-dumping here, rather Seiffert skilfully weaves background information through the use of flashbacks. The plot is kept at a reasonable pace without dragging or feeling bogged down, yet the reader still gains knowledge both on what is happening and on the characters themselves.

A Boy in Winter is less than 300 pages long but it packs a punch. I felt stunned after reading it. The writing is incredibly evocative and haunting, reflecting the struggles of this war-torn town. The depth of emotion that Seiffert imbues in only a small novel is remarkable. Looking back, A Boy in Winter remarks upon the horror and destruction that humanity can unleash upon itself yet it still offers a glimmer of hope. We see the worst things people can do to one another yet we also see the positive things we are capable of too. The novel seems to suggest that no matter how dark things get, there will always be a flicker of light. Even if you know nothing about the German occupation of Ukraine, I would still highly recommend A Boy in Winter.

A Boy in Winter is published by Virago and you can find more information here.

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