In her newest novel, Winter Kept Us Warm, Anne Raeff uses time like a bouncy ball, bopping between characters, exotic destinations and periods in history, all without ever losing control. Following the events of World War II, readers move with the characters from their youth and its warm sense of belonging to the cold reality of old age and the feeling of uncertainty that comes with separation. Through expertly maneuvering the intricacies of time, Raeff maintains a sense of apprehension and suspense for the reader, while painting a diverse picture of the often unseen landscapes of postwar existence. The story may be centered around the love triangle that entangles best friends, Ulli, a German teenager during the Russian occupation, and two American soldiers, Leo and Isaac, but readers will find the direction of their story to be anything but simply trilateral.
Opening with Ulli and Isaac’s strained reunion in Morocco after decades of separation, there is an implicit sense of mystery to the novel regarding the fractures of their relationship and the resounding question that glues the characters together: Where is Leo? This conspicuously absent third side of the triangle propels much of Raeff’s story, even after readers are bounced back in time to American-occupied Germany, and the bar in which Ulli first meets Leo and Isaac.
Although they come from diverse backgrounds, Isaac the soft-spoken, asthmatic son of Russian expatriates living in New York, Leo the American soldier with a heart condition, eager to escape small-town Pennsylvania, and Ulli the pragmatic interpreter with a passion for travel, they are all united by one thing: denial. Denial of responsibility, denial of the past and, most importantly, denial of the self. One of the main questions, however, is whether these friends and lovers will ultimately deny each other: “Did they cry because they knew they could not be true to one another or because they were, in fact, true to one another?”
Unlike other narratives that focus on postwar trauma, Raeff’s novel does not become mired in sentimentality or forced significance, but instead treads with a quiet, strong elegance due to her incredible prose. Raeff achieves sophisticated character development through rolling sentences that strike with surprising gravity, like when Ulli begins to think about how people manipulate memory. She recalls the first time she was “aware enough to rationalize, to reinvent the story, create her own version of what in fact was happening, for isn’t that what so much of memory, so much of life is - reinventing a more palatable version of one’s own actions?” Simplistic yet intellectually rich, the seductive prose will keep readers turning the page just as much as the plot.
Most of the emotional punches packed by this book come in the form of dialogue, which repeatedly builds and breaks relationships. Conversations within the novel are short and snappy, bouncing back and forth between characters. Sometimes the exchanges are witty and sharp:
“Nothing is necessary, except for food and shelter,” Isaac said.
“And love,” Leo said, turning to Ulli. “Don’t you think love is necessary?”
“Not in the same way as food and shelter,” she replied.
Other times the conversations make the reader squirm under tension:
“Perhaps what I think now is that greatness is overrated.”
“I don’t know about greatness, but I still think happiness is overrated,” Ulli said.
Isaac almost found himself saying, That’s because you didn’t have children.
There are plenty of almosts and buts and didn’ts in this story; conversations made particularly poignant by what is left unsaid. In this manner, Raeff captures realistic dialogue with effortless, pinpoint accuracy.
Raeff also examines complex topics such as sexuality, gender roles, parenthood and disabilities with careful compassion, all filtering back to the core story about the tattered friendship of three complicated World War II survivors, enhancing her message about denial of the self and unhappiness.
For Raeff’s characters, and for her readers, happiness can be a burden. As Leo learns from a particularly wise and lonely man, happiness is frightening because “it requires you to be who you really are even if people despise you.” But Raeff does not shy away from the challenge of showing readers happy characters, oppressed by the weight of their happiness, and the damage they are able to cause to those around them. She digs deep and prods the most sensitive parts of the heart, exposing us to ourselves through her characters, showing us the painfully complex and contradictory mysteries that comprise human emotion in the most beautiful and haunting way possible.