The first section of Hubert Mingarelli's short novel begins with a beautiful description of the Polish countryside during winter and ends with a disturbing description of the mind of a Nazi during the second world war - disturbing not because it presents an evil mind but because it presents an ordinary one.

It wonders what it was like to have been a normal human being in the Nazi machinery. It asks: what would the parts of that machine do to flesh and brain and soul?

This approach will be disturbing for most readers, particularly in Britain, because we are used to novels and war films presenting all Nazis as pantomime bad. Even HHhH, Laurent Binet's recent novel about Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich - which was, like A Meal In Winter, translated from French by Sam Taylor - lacked any depth in its portrayal of its Nazi characters. It was rightly acclaimed as a great, inventive novel but that was mostly because of its witty narrative devices rather than its characterisation, which stuck to the traditional pattern of Nazis in fiction as cartoon bad guys.

Famously, Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones tried to do something different in 2009 and received a mixed reception for that reason. Not only did its central character, Maximilien Aue, fail to follow the pattern of the archetypal Nazi, the book imagined how an ordinary person like Littell would have behaved during the Holocaust. It was controversial because it suggested that many people coped by detaching themselves, by assuming a kind of neutrality even while their finger was on the trigger.

A Meal In Winter explores similar territory. It follows three German foot soldiers sent out into the Polish countryside to find a Jew and bring him back for execution. As they trudge through the snow, the soldiers consider their distaste for the mass shootings of the Jews: "We didn't like the shootings ... doing it made us feel bad at the time and gave us bad dreams at night. When we woke in the morning, we felt down as soon as we started thinking about it."

Mingarelli then uses the device of the meal referenced in the title to explore the soldiers' feelings and the effect that murder has on those who carry it out. The meal is with a young Jewish boy the soldiers flush out from his hiding place, and Mingarelli's handling of the consequences is complex and surprising. The soldiers are neither good nor evil: they are complicated and contradictory, sympathetic and hateful, caring and cowardly.

This is not easy for the reader to handle, but Mingarelli knows what he is doing and heightens the effect by introducing a Polish man into the story and subverting the stereotypes here too. Traditionally, a Pole in a second world war story would be the victim but here is a violent racist, as unsubtle as the Germans are subtle (the Pole "opened his mouth and bared his gums in a kind of monstrous smile, like a dead fish without teeth").

The effect of all this is unsettling and, in the wrong hands, could have ended up being an apology for what ordinary men and women did in Hitler's name. However, it is much too complicated for that and there is no avoidance of blame or shame; as the novel unfolds, we learn that all three of the central German characters have committed terrible acts and are likely to do so again.

Interestingly, the conclusion the novel reaches is similar to the one in The Kindly Ones: that some of the men and women who served the Nazis coped by refusing to know their victims. In A Meal In Winter, this is laid out for us when the soldier who narrates the novel discusses with one of the other soldiers, Bauer, whether to release the Jew from his storeroom prison. They all know the consequences of doing this - the danger of getting to know the Jew: "Bauer ... asked me why the Jew should stay in the storeroom. But he knew the answer."

In the end, the soldiers do release him but where this leads is another surprise. It would spoil the book to reveal where that is, but the fact that there is a twist - or rather a twist on a twist - adds another layer of complexity to a group of humans in a complex, wretched, nasty, bloody situation where moral absolutes are useless and only lead to more trouble. It is a final disturbing ripple in a disturbing but satisfying book.