A Mind of Winter by Shira Nayman (A Review by Brian Libgober)

Akashic Books

332 pgs/$15.95

Set a few years after the end of the Second World War, A Mind of Winter opens with protagonist Oscar musing about the irony of his impending indictment for crimes against humanity.  They say that an emotionally balanced person should be able to find humor in anything.  In Oscar’s case, however, the ability to see irony in a life-altering disaster speaks less to his good mental health than it does to his spiritual fatigue and social alienation.

Like a later day Gatsby, Oscar lives on Long Island’s North Shore with a motley assortment of semi-permanent guests.  Of particular interest in this group are a Brit named Barnaby, his lover Marilyn, her husband Simon, and finally Wallace, the faithful butler.  Whereas it was always a mystery how Gatsby made his fortune, Oscar is forthright about the origin of his wealth. He is an art-dealer who profiteers off paintings stolen from German museums during the war.  It turns out that the government’s accusation against Oscar is not so far off the mark.  Oscar is a war criminal, he’s just not a Nazi war criminal.  At least his mother will be able to say that for him.  Or she would, rather, if she hadn’t been killed in the Holocaust.  About half way through the book, Oscar reveals that he was once Robert, a German Jew who only managed to escape from Europe by posing as an S.S. officer.  To recapitulate, Oscar has been mistaken for a Nazi twice in his life.  The first time that mistake saved his life, but this time it threatens to destroy it.  Indeed, that is ironic.

The story jumps backward in time from Oscar musing privately in his Gatsby-esque mansion to 1947 Shanghai.  There we find that Oscar’s love Christine has started letting her fondness for “the pipe” get the better of her.  Dabbling in “white lotus” is common among Christine’s social set.  Barnaby, the same Barnaby who will later live with Oscar, frequents the same opium den as Christine does, for example.  Unlike her friends, Christine is a schoolteacher and woman of modest means.  She has amassed a debt at Han Shu’s “café” that is too larger to be paid-off. To avoid physical retribution from the duplicitous Han Shu, Christine agrees to go into business with him as manager of an all-girls school.  As one might expect, this particular for-profit educational institution is even more exploitive than most.  Christine teaches the girls who attend English so that Han Shu can make more money pimping them as underage prostitutes.  The qualms Christine has about her new profession soon become lost in the fog of her addiction. Ultimately, Christine herself becomes a prostitute, in a vivid and horrifying scene:

“One of the them [men] produces a box of some kind, crudely made and filled with something that gives off a rank odor.  With one hand still on his groin, the man pulls a match from somewhere and draws it across the wall… A small flame leaps from the box, giving off an odious stink.  Shoving it before me, I realize he intends me to heat the opium over the burning stuff.  I have nothing to use as an instrument, so I just hold it over, feeling the flame bite my fingers as the opium loosens to slime.  I paste it over the hole in the stem of the pipe and with all of my strength suck in the smoke.  An awful sound brews in his throat as he mounts me.  I suck again at the pipe, only vaguely aware of his coarse movements.” (112)

Christine’s grasp on reality continues to loosen.  After finally hitting rock bottom, she decides to steal Han Shu’s prized girl and gets Barnaby to help them secure passage to England.

Skipping ahead some years, the story takes a new focus on Marilyn, a guest at Oscar’s home on Long Island.  Marilyn is a photographer working on a collection of pieces related to the war.  She is also leading a very vigorous sex life, both with her beloved writer husband Simon and the inscrutable, dislikeable, and ever-present Barnaby.  Initially her story mainly concerns her reasons, or lack thereof, for having an affair.  “I was only here, with him [Barnaby], because I’d been blindsided into loving my husband too much.” (218) Marilyn is not particularly good with articulating her motivations.  What she means to say is that she feels rejected because she loves her husband more than he seems to love her.   By having sex with a repulsive, up-for-anything guy like Barnaby, she loses self-esteem, but also protects herself from rejection.  Marilyn’s description of her self-esteem hedging strategy is interrupted by the arrival of a mysterious Justice Department official.  The official asks her to aid the government’s investigation of Oscar.  Marilyn becomes increasingly unnerved by Oscar, and ultimately does decide to get in touch with the investigator. The novel hurtles toward a thrilling conclusion when Oscar is forced to take on yet another identity and flee to England, where he will ultimately reunite with his beloved Christine.

The central philosophical concern of A Mind of Winter is to engage with problems of self-transformation. Its three protagonists are all running from old identities that they cannot seem to shake.  In contrast to these is Barnaby, who is the novel’s constant. Across time and space, he’s always the same smarmy bon vivant.  Shamelessness seems to be Barnaby’s key virtue, a virtue in the sense that it makes his life easier to lead than that of all the other protagonists.  Embarrassment, self-loathing, and alienation all play a role in preventing Marilyn, Oscar, and Christine from honestly articulating their proper motivations.  Their failure to achieve self-knowledge prevents them from achieving the personal development that they’d like.  A Mind of Winter takes a hard look at the way people live.  It takes the reader on a journey into the abyss of human experience, but it concludes with hope and the possibility of redemption.  By encouraging individuals to be honest with themselves about their motivations, A Mind of Winter presents a unique and important moral lesson.


Brian Libgober is a writer and freelance mathematician.  His work has appeared in Sliced Bread, The Midway Review, and The New York Times Magazine (Online).  He is currently seeking representation for his debut novel.