A Boy In Winter

Rachel Seiffert

Virago, £14.99

Review by Lesley McDowell

RACHEL Seiffert has spoken eloquently of the Nazi history in her family as her grandfather was a doctor in the SS. She has also written about the Holocaust in her debut, The Dark Room, a novel she worked on while she was living and studying in Glasgow.

More than 15 years later, the Booker-shortlisted novelist has returned to that subject. A Boy in Winter is a deeply moving and more morally complex fictionalisation of the mass extermination of the Jewish community in a Ukrainian town two years into the Second World War. It is more morally complex because she portrays the reluctant Nazi, as well as the conscientious German; the Stalin-oppressed Ukrainian farmer as well as the traumatised Ukrainian soldier. We see the Jewish son defying his father who’s fearful of breaking Nazi rules and a peasant girl who goes against her community. Nothing is easy or obvious in this world overturned by war and genocide.

What Seiffert does so brilliantly, though, is often the hardest thing to do. One character after another is introduced in turn, so we see the impact of the Nazis who have taken over this small Ukrainian town from a series of different viewpoints. First is the eponymous boy, initially anonymous, running through dark empty streets with his younger brother. Then we switch to Otto Pohl, a German engineer who has been sent to the town to oversee the building of a new road. He is opposed to Hitler, has refused to fight, and lives in fear of being accused of treason.

He witnesses the early morning round-up of the town’s Jews. We switch to the Jewish schoolmaster and his elderly mother, forced by Nazi soldiers and Ukrainian policemen into an abandoned brick factory along with hundreds of other Jewish members of the town. Yasia, daughter of a Russian-hating Ukrainian farmer and his peasant wife who hails from the "beyond-the-pale" marshlands community, witnesses the round-up, too. And then we turn to Ephraim, the father of the boy we saw on the first page, held captive in the brick factory with the rest of the town’s Jews, and fretting because his sons are not with him.

What Seiffert does so well is to make us care immediately and passionately about the fates of every individual in this novel, and not just because they are all in a heightened state of danger. It is easy to care about what happens to small boys trying to flee people who we know want to kill them.

It is harder to care as much about a German engineer working for the Nazis, yet she makes us do so by giving us the information we need about his home life, his wife and child, his loathing of Hitler and what he stands for, and his impotence to protest against it.

In a key scene halfway through the book, for example, Pohl is taken to the brick factory where the Jews are being held. His superior officer asks him to choose people from those assembled to work on his road as labourers. Pohl makes a crucial mistake: he thinks he’s being asked to select people for almost certain death – the labour is desperately hard work in terrible conditions and only the strongest could survive it. He refuses to take women and children therefore, or anyone over the age of thirty. The reader knows, as the scene goes on and on, what Pohl does not yet know: that those picked for labour are the only ones with a chance of survival. Pohl is condemning women and children to certain annihilation.

This question of sympathy is key throughout. Yasia’s boyfriend, Myko, will take part in the exterminations, a Ukrainian soldier who first volunteered to fight with the Russians, then deserted and joined the Nazis when they arrived in the town. He’s war-damaged and drunk most of the time; later, drunk and killing, his soul will be destroyed as much as the bodies around him.

How to escape mass murder, and how to escape the brutalising effects of it? These questions preoccupy first the victim, and then the murderer, and Seiffert shows that they are not easy to answer. Even the "boy in winter" is compromised by them in his life-saving yet devastating rejection of his father’s values, his father’s example. Seiffert has shied away from nothing in this novel and the consequences of her stark examination, in pared-back, precise prose, will stay with you for a very long time.