It’s the winter of 1941 and we are in the Ukraine. A fourteen year old girl is hiding in a wood on the vast and bitter-cold steppe. Her name is Katinka, a name from folk song and fairy tale, and she has been befriended by two of the wild Przelowski’s horses.
The name of the place is Askania-Nova, a nature reserve founded by the rich and kindly German Baron Falz-Fein. The Baron and his family have been driven out by the Bolsheviks but are still remembered with deep affection by the ancient Ukrainian curator Maxim Borisovich. Stalin’s policies have starved the countryside and Max has endured torture at the hands of the state police as well as the loss of his wife. Now he lives alone in his tiny cottage with only the giant wolfhound Taras for company.
By the winter of 1941 the Nazis have invaded Russia and Askania-Nova has been occupied by the SS. When their Commandant, Captain Grenzemann, a former Olympic horseman, sees the wild horses he concludes that they are a sub-equine species, a wandering Gypsy breed who must be completely eradicated in case they should mate with his cherished Hanoverians. They are also potentially meat and his men are hungry.
Almost everyone is hungry in this story, though Grenzemann and his men eat better than most. The Winter Horses is a marvellous blend of the historical situation of the suffering Russian countryside (Askania-Nova did and does exist) and the quasi-magical relationship that exists between Katinka and the Przelowski horses, Temüjin and Börte. They can speak to one another without words, an extension of the everyday understanding between people and animals that I found easy to accept in context, and extremely satisfying to read.
Things happen that are truly horrible – already at the beginning of the story Katinka has seen so much that she has lost the power to cry. Yet there are also unexpected moments of kindness – the old man Max and his wolf-hound Taras are unstintingly generous to Katinka and the horses – and the story insists that there are good and bad people on either side and that even the worst people have the potential to have been different. Nevertheless Katinka feels compelled to apologise to her animal companions for the appalling behaviour of most of the humans that they meet. If God lived on earth, she says, she’d go and smash his windows.
The Winter Horses is an exciting tale of adventure and (sometimes preposterous) escapes. I thoroughly enjoyed it and will be passing it on to my adult daughter as well as recommending it for teens and for those confident readers who have the emotional stability to get through the brief, carefully-written scenes of slaughter. Philip Kerr has managed something rather remarkable in siting his story in a space where history and legend can co-exist without either diminishing the truth of the other. He says it rather better than I do. And yet if today you were in the Ukraine and dared to put your ear into the wind or perhaps took a trip across the steppes and listened to the deep voices of the bison, the whoop of the cranes and the laughter of the Przewalski's horses, you might learn[...]that even if there are some parts of this story that are not exactly true, they could be, and that is more important.
I loved this novel - and if it's too late for the Christmas list, go on - treat yourself.
(This review was first published on The Bookbag website)