book review: A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

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A BOY IN WINTER by Rachel Seiffert
★★★☆☆
2017, Pantheon Books

This is one of those books that didn’t inspire much of a reaction in me in either direction. There’s certainly not enough here to love, but there’s not much to strongly dislike, either. This felt to me like a bloated short story, whose subtleties would have perhaps been more effective in a shorter, more concise format.

A Boy in Winter‘s greatest strength is that it effectively downplays the grandiosity of the events it’s portraying. Though it is a World War II novel (and I know most people’s reactions to its inclusion on the Women’s Prize longlist was ‘oh no, another World War II novel’), it really doesn’t feel like one. It takes place over the course of three days toward the beginning of the German occupation of Ukraine in 1941. Seiffert deftly captures the sense of confusion and uncertainty for these characters who are unknowingly on the precipice of this massive historical event.

This is a quiet novel whose sparse, economical writing style suits its tone well. But the characters are forgettable and paper thin, the plot is nonexistent, the thematic resonance falls short, and the setting is rarely utilized to its full potential. I just don’t quite understand what Rachel Seiffert was attempting with this. There’s nothing terribly striking or unique or innovative or timely about this particular story that would recommend it over the sundry other Holocaust novels out there, or the exciting contemporary fiction that’s being published every day. This isn’t a bad book, but my experience reading it was a mostly hollow one. I’m a fan of quietly moving books, but there needs to be something that resonates for them to be effective, and that was just missing here.

12 thoughts on “book review: A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert

  1. Great post!

    Hello,

    I saw that you are a book blogger. I recently released a book “Life of Randy” I would love it if you would review on your blog with an honest review.

    If you are interested I can send you a free copy in your preferred format.

    Thank you so much for your time

    Philip Lister

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Philip!

      I’m so sorry, I’m not accepting review requests for the time being. My life is quite busy at the moment and I can barely keep up with things I’ve already promised to read and review. But I wish you all the best with your book!

      Like

  2. My reaction was definitely along the lines of “yay.. another Holocaust novel…” and all the reviews I have seen are lukewarm at best. I am sure there are still important books to be written about World War II but this one I will skip. Your review confirmed my suspicions about this.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think I’m more open to WWII books than most people – I totally get the ennui about them, and I’m not necessarily MORE likely to pick up a book just because it’s WWII-set, but if a book sounds interesting to me and it’s set in WWII I find the period interesting enough that I’ll still want to read it. So I thought I’d give A Boy in Winter a chance, because it’s one of the first summaries that grabbed me from the Women’s Prize longlist. I’m sad to report that it was such a miss. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to read this simply because I have no idea who the target audience is even meant to be.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I did have to read an awful lot of WWII books during school – I mean rightfully so but it does lead to oversaturation in a way. But, if the book has something interesting to say, I will still read it. (In fact I just read a graphic novel that I thought puts a very interesting spin on the usual narrative)

        Liked by 1 person

      • I can imagine that’s featured quite prominently in the German curriculum. I had an entirely rubbish history education and I actually don’t think I ever officially learned about WWII in any of my classes, so I haven’t overdosed yet. But I know what you mean – there are some topics I’d be glad to never read about again, important as they may be. Which graphic novel was that?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Yees, it is featured quite prominently indeed – rightfully so. I am always surprised to hear other country’s emphasize other parts of history because WWII has so far-reaching consequences. Plus, the whole not repeating history thing seems fairly important.
        I read My Favorite Thing Is Monsters yesterday; I definitely recommend that – but I only realized when I was part-way through that it’s the first in a series and the rest isn’t out.

        Like

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