book review: A Boy in Winter by Rachel Seiffert


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.