Reading The Second Winter, by Craig Larsen, can be bewildering. The narrative shifts from character to character and through time. The connections between the characters are only slowly revealed and, even then, remain somewhat tenuous. I appreciated the perspective the book presented of lives sliding around each other, occasionally colliding. What made the book difficult was the constant threat of violence to Polina and the other female characters. Rape and sexual exploitation loom too large in this book.
The Second Winter introduces us to two women, separated by more than twenty years. Angela Schmidt is traveling into East Berlin to perform a concert. She plans to sneak a visit to her aunt, who got caught on the other side of the Wall, and she is smuggling something dangerous enough that the mere sight of the border guards is terrifying. Then we jump back to 1939 and over to Poland. Polina is the daughter of a Jewish mother and a gentile father. The Germans have invaded and rounded up her family. Polina only avoided their fate because she happened to be away from home at just the right time, though she doesn’t remain free for long.
We won’t know what happened to Polina or how Angela is involved until a few more characters, all men, are introduced. We meet the photographer Hermann (Angela’s father); Fredrik Gregerson, a violent amphetamine addict who smuggles Jews from Denmark to Sweden for money; Fredrik’s son, Oscar; and few others. As the narrative lurches along, connections through family relationships and stolen jewelry start to emerge. I felt, at the beginning of The Second Winter, that the book had started from too wide a view. By the end, with its climactic scenes at the Gregerson farm in Jutland, everything started to make sense.
The sexual violence, which permeates most of the beginning of the book, is hard to read. Polina suffers repeatedly at the hands of men who order her to do this or that, always for their pleasure. Worse, the scenes between Polina and the male characters are all presented from the male perspective. We don’t know what she’s thinking most of the time and, because the men see nothing wrong with what they’re doing, these scenes are terrifying. When I asked for a copy of this book, I was not prepared for this. I was expecting a tangled history revolving around the connections between the characters.
The Second Winter is skillfully written but, because of the particular type of violence, I can’t recommend the book to many readers. Any recommendation would come with a strong trigger warning.
I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 27 September 2016.