The action of Rachel Seiffert’s third novel takes place over three days in a small town in Ukraine in November 1941. One set of hated invaders – the Russians – has retreated and the SS arrive, wasting no time in rounding up the Jewish population. Unusually for a writer tackling the Nazis, Seiffert refuses to fetishise uniforms, weapons, vehicles, hierarchies or psychopathy. A novel can do all that and still be a masterpiece – see Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones. But Seiffert’s aim is different, and her worm’s-eye view is all the more powerful for its restraint.
The boy of the title is Yankel, flitting in and out of the narrative like a feral cat, difficult to catch or tame. ‘His books were blotted and streaked and smeary; he thought in rash and bold strokes, and only ever in short bursts’, daydreaming through prayers and the singing