Three Characters In Search of a Purpose

A Mind of WinterA Mind of Winter by Shira Nayman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Judging from the news, we are just beginning to reap the harvest of psychiatric disorders that will haunt our military servicemen as they return from years of war without much in the way of leave. The experience of being constantly on tour, or about to leave for another tour, has stresses of its own — let alone the ethical disconnect that makes murder and violence not only legal but a requirement.

Because of the brevity of our national attention span, though, these problems have not spread to the rest of us. One must look back to the Second World War to find a conflict that affected so many of us. The mass enlistments, along with the social upheaval that drove Rosie the Riveter to work and forced us to ration everything from gasoline to pantyhose changed our nation — and changed every nation that the war touched. Three people in particular (Robert, Christine and Marilyn) find themselves adrift in the odd moral seas that the outrages of the first half of the twentieth century stirred up.

Robert seems to be running from war crimes investigators; Christine has fled a host of horrors in her own past, including a disillusionment in her own relationship with Robert, for the forgetfulness of Shanghai. The easy availability of opium allows Christine to forget the abuse that marked her childhood, as well as the forbidden love that ended her tenure as an English schoolteacher. Once she found Robert wanting, she lost all hope in life and headed east, having only her sensual looks to keep her from starvation, once her savings run out. Once Robert takes on a new name and heads to America, Marilyn (and her husband Simon) are a part of his salon, floating in and out of his lovely home in Ellis Park. A character traveling through all of their lives is Barnaby, who is adept at luring women for his own gratification, but stopping at the point of commitment. He is only too happy to have an affair with Marilyn, but he makes it quite clear that he does not want her to leave Simon for him. His feelings for Christine (whom he began to ply with opium as part of a relationship prophetic of the Kardashian Era) seemed to be stronger, but by the time he finds Marilyn, he has learned the parts of a relationship which he likes best.

Several mysteries are in play here — the nature of Robert’s crimes in the shadowy days of the Second World War being the most cryptic. However, the choices that Marilyn and Christine will make are ultimately just as compelling. The narrative moves from Christine’s point of view to Marilyn’s, and then to Robert’s, and Shira Nayman ably slips from one voice to another; the sedated Christine reminds one of a languid Ingrid Bergman, while Marilyn could well be John Cusack’s (at first) incredulous girlfriend in “Being John Malkovich.” The imagery of postwar Shanghai and the dark moonlight in which Marilyn, Barnaby and (ultimately) Robert all move create a captivating world.

The poem that is the inspiration for the title is Wallace Stevens’ “The Snow Man.” Without giving away the resolution to all of these mysteries, I can report that while the 30-minute-sitcom optimism that has come to formulate our national attention span will not do much more than keep us entertained, as the powers that be fumble away more of our future while we sit glued to our entertainments, the courageous depths of true faith and hope can bring redemption, just as they always have.

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