Continuing my review of the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist with two very different titles.
Rachel Seiffert’s A Boy In Winter is set over the course of a few days in 1941, when the SS advance on a small Ukrainian town and round up its Jews. The book is narrated by a number of characters. Ephraim and Miryam, a Jewish couple, wait to be transported with their daughter Rosa while they fear for the fate of their two sons, Yankel and Momick, who have gone missing. Otto Pohl, a German engineer, recoiling from the Nazi Party, has managed to avoid conscription into the army and has been sent to this outpost to build a new road; however, much as he tries to shut his eyes, he soon becomes uneasily aware of what’s going on. Yasia, a ‘marsh girl’, has trekked from the countryside in search of her lover, Mykola, who has recently been released from the Red Army only to become entangled with the SS. Finally, we hear from Yankel himself, the ‘boy in winter’, who is on the run with his little brother.
A novel which deals with such events cannot fail to be moving, and Seiffert’s spare and effective writing style illuminates the horrors she describes. However, I did find myself asking what purpose it serves to retell this very familiar narrative. (While I don’t believe I’ve read a Holocaust novel before that’s specifically set in the Ukraine, the setting lends little to the story, with only very brief mentions of the legacy of the Soviet occupation, for example.) Seiffert has written about how she perceives parallels between the current political climate and 1930s Germany, but, whether or not we might feel such parallels are helpful or accurate, I didn’t feel that A Boy In Winter really led me to reflect on anything other than the very specific historical moment it deals with. Its central cast are also pretty stock. Writers need to have a very good reason for evoking such a painful and brutal history, and I wasn’t sure that A Boy In Winter added enough to the extensive fiction on the Third Reich and the Holocaust to justify telling this story again.
Joanna Cannon’s second novel, Three Things About Elsie, feels strongly reminiscent of both Emma Healey’s Elizabeth Is Missing and Gail Honeyman’s Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Florence is eighty-four and living in a care home, Cherry Tree; her closest companion is her best friend Elsie. She lives in fear of detoriating so much she has to be moved to Greenbanks, where she can receive full-time nursing care, and is told at the beginning of the novel that she is on a month’s ‘probation’. However, Florence believes that the newest resident of the care home is out to get her – and moreover, that he is implicated in the death of Elsie’s sister Beryl decades ago.
Cannon is an astute observer, and there are lots of clever and touching lines in Three Things About Elsie. One of the carers, Miss Ambrose, ‘always looked like someone who hadn’t had quite enough sleep, but had put on another coat of lipstick and enthusiasm, in an effort to make sure the rest of the world didn’t ever find her out.’ Elsie’s father ‘left for the war and returned as a telegram on the mantlepiece. Her mother was convinced they’d made a mistake, and she would roll her eyes and tut at the telegram, as though it was deliberately trying to trick her into early widowhood.’ Like fellow longlistee Kit de Waal, Cannon writes especially well about time, especially for the old. ‘It feels like yesterday… Sometimes, I think there must be a shortcut between the past and the present, but no-one bothers to tell you about it until you get old,’ Florence says to Elsie. ‘There were times when the present felt so unimportant, so unnecessary,’ she thinks. ‘Just somewhere I had to dip into from time to time, out of politeness.’ I enjoyed Florence’s stubborn resistance to the norms of the care home, and her determination to hang on to her individuality.
However, Cannon’s observations can also be a bit too obvious, especially when spelling out the morals of her story. ‘It’s called sheltered accommodation, but I’d never quite been able to work out what it was we were being sheltered from… I often wondered if it was actually the world being sheltered from us.’ My biggest problem with Three Things About Elsie, however, was the structure. We know early on that there’s a mystery surrounding Elsie, and I worked out instantly what it was, which made me feel increasingly irritated that it was positioned as a twist at the end – it would have been better, I think, to make it clear from the start. Because the book is so long, Florence’s confusions about what is real and not real became increasingly difficult to follow. I have to admit, books where the protagonist is generally confused in their own mind (rather than suffering amnesia about a specific incident) are not really my thing, as I get tired of so much uncertainty. Sections from the point of view of some of the care home staff didn’t seem to add much; nor did the past/present structure, where we flash between Florence lying on the floor of her room after a fall and her investigations a month earlier.
Three Things About Elsie has been categorised as ‘up lit’, which I don’t think should be confused with ‘cheery’. It’s a sad and difficult book in many ways. However, for me, the ‘up lit’ category seems to single out books where bad things can and do happen, but the majority of the characters are benign and well-intentioned, and kindness is emphasised as a key virtue. Three Things About Elsie definitely fulfils that criteria. It’s an easy, and, in many ways, refreshing read, but I personally wouldn’t put it on the Woman’s Prize shortlist.