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Seiffert, Rachel 1971–

Seiffert, Rachel 1971–

PERSONAL:

Born January, 1971, in Oxford, England.

ADDRESSES:

Home—Berlin, Germany.

CAREER:

Writer, novelist, and educator. Previously worked as a film editor, writer, and director.

AWARDS, HONORS:

Betty Trask Prize, 2002, for The Dark Room; First Fiction Award, LA Times, 2002, for The Dark Room; named one of the Granta Best of Young British Novelists, 2003.

WRITINGS:

The Dark Room, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2001.

Field Study (short stories), Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2004.

Afterwards, Pantheon Books (New York, NY), 2007.

SIDELIGHTS:

Rachel Seiffert's debut novel, The Dark Room, is an examination of German denial of involvement in the Holocaust. It imagines how three lives and three generations were impacted by this legacy in stories that stress personal experiences rather than historical events. Reviewers applauded the daring that Seiffert showed in focusing on characters closely linked to the Nazi regime. They also commended her lean prose as a perfect vehicle for the subject.

Seiffert's own experiences, being raised in England by a German mother and Australian father, inspired her to write The Dark Room. Her family was bilingual, followed German traditions, and visited Germany regularly. In school, classmates called her a Nazi, introducing her to the idea that Germans were considered evil. Seiffert's mother talked to her frankly about the Third Reich and the Holocaust. When Seiffert began a career in film production, she also wrote on the side, and The Dark Room was her first publication.

The three parts of The Dark Room are named after their central characters. The first story, "Helmut," is set during the years 1921-1945 and details the experiences of a young German who is unfit for military service because of a physical handicap. When he becomes a photographer's apprentice, he proceeds to document how Berlin changes throughout the course of the war. His photographs of the central train station show the dramatic deterioration of the city, but Helmut often refuses to see the ugly facts they represent. "Lore" shows the difficulties faced by a teenage girl at war's end. She is given the responsibility of caring for four younger siblings while her parents learn the consequences of being Nazis. Lore's mother destroys the children's Hitler youth badges and uniforms and sends them on a dangerous journey across the country to live with their grandmother. Only then does Lore learn of the horrors that took place during the war. The final section, "Micha," relates the concerns of the grandson of a Waffen SS soldier. After discovering that his much-loved "Opa" spent nine years in a Russian labor camp, Micha wants to know what crimes he committed. The young man pressures family members to reveal his grandfather's role in the war and visits Belarus in his search for the truth.

The Dark Room was widely reviewed and earned numerous recommendations. It was repeatedly called an exceptionally strong debut novel. In a review for the Economist, a contributor marveled that Seiffert, then only thirty years old and two generations removed from the era she writes about, was able to create such a vivid picture of the Third Reich. The writer commented: "All three of Ms Seiffert's stories, but particularly [the] last, circle the terrible possibility that for some evildoing there can be no atonement." The book was also described as "a very readable, imaginative attempt to hold essential truths in living memory." Similarly, Library Journal's David W. Henderson wrote: "Each of these compelling, wholly believable stories lends additional perspective to our understanding of the period."

A Publishers Weekly reviewer commented: "Placed alongside the historical record, the tales gives a more complete, comprehensible picture of incomprehensible evil."

Other reviewers highlighted the strength of Seiffert's dark stories and simple prose. In a review for Teenreads.com, Jana Siciliano remarked that "Seiffert's prose is spare yet knowing, allowing the individual pursuits of each character to take on a life of their own without any poetic posturing." Siciliano commended the novel as "an intelligent and heartfelt first work." Writing for the London Free Press, Nancy Schiefer asserted that the "beautifully written, elegant and emotional trilogy" had strong thematic and stylistic ties to acclaimed novels by Gunter Grass, Heinrich Boll, Bernard Schlink, and Nancy Huston. "The Dark Room belongs in this exalted company, as Seiffert manages to balance grim reality with the tenuous optimism which defines most human experience," commented Schiefer.

In a review for the Washington Post, Adam Kirsch considered the significance of the novel's title, The Dark Room. He found that it "supplies the metaphor by which these stories are related: They are stages in a photographic exposure, and Germany itself is the darkroom in which the truth slowly comes to light." Kirsch credited Seiffert with a kind of bravery in creating protagonists who were "none of them actually criminals but each somehow complicit in the nation's crime." He also approved of the way that the author limited her view to the character's lives. Kirsch wrote that she "shows considerable novelistic skill in blurring the facts; her omissions mirror the national refusal to look closely at what was happening in Germany."

Daniel Mendelsohn, writing for New York, described the novel's three components as being "each longer and more morally complex in its treatment of the issues of memory, guilt, and witness than the one before." Among Seiffert's literary tools, the critic named a "dramatic starkness … and disquieting indirection." In addition, he perceived a second line of commentary in the novel, suggesting that more than German guilt was under consideration. "Seiffert uses her stories to suggest the conflicts of the writers and artists who attempt, as she does, to grapple with the Holocaust," wrote Mendelsohn.

The Dark Room was described as an "ambitious and powerful first novel" by David Sacks in the New York Times Book Review. Sacks also had strong praise for Seiffert's skill as a writer. Sacks noted: "Seiffert writes lean, clean prose. Deftly, she hangs large ideas on the vivid private experiences of her principal characters." The critic closed by remarking on the positive message ultimately effected by the novel: "The novel's ending brings a sense of reconciliation, opening onto hope for the next generation of Germans."

Seiffert's next book is the short story collection Field Study. The stories collected here focus primarily on tales of love and the need for human connection, whether it be between men and women, parents and children, or even enemies. For example, in "The Crossing," a family finds itself being aided in their survival by the enemy. The title story revolves around a young biologist who conceals his discoveries at a polluted river from a local woman, who may be contaminated along with her daughter. "Disciplined, spare and unsentimental, these are accomplished, often moving tales," wrote a Publishers Weekly contributor. Jessica Shaw, writing in Entertainment Weekly, noted that Seiffert "writes without judgment or sympathy," making the "flawed characters … all the more compelling."

Seiffert returns to the novel with Afterwards, which Guardian contributor Alfred Hickling called "a quietly ambitious book which demonstrates Seiffert's determination to probe at the raw wounds of history." The story revolves around Alice and her relationship with two men: her maternal grandfather, David, and her boyfriend, Joseph. In both cases, the men hide things about their past from others. David, whose wife has recently died, was in the British air force in Kenya during the Mau Mau rebellion while Joseph served in Northern Ireland. Both men are dealing with the horrific memories of having killed. Alice is upset with Joseph because she has revealed so much of her personal life to him but senses that he is keeping something hidden from her. In the meantime, her relationship with her grandfather is awkward, as she has always found him distant and cold. As the story progresses, readers learn of how the events in these men's past have affected their lives. "Seiffert has written an unusually beautiful, restrained, and trenchant novel of the invisible yet lasting traumas of war," wrote Donna Seaman in Booklist. A Publishers Weekly contributor noted: "Her beautifully understated, pointed exploration of the emotional toll of guerrilla war shines with clarity and vision."

BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:

PERIODICALS

Booklist, August, 2004, Deborah Donovan, review of Field Study, p. 1903; June 1, 2007, Donna Seaman, review of Afterwards, p. 33.

Economist, May 12, 2001, "White on Black; New Fiction," p. 5.

Entertainment Weekly, July 23, 2004, Jessica Shaw, review of Field Study, p. 82.

Guardian (London, England), February 24, 2007, Alfred Hickling, review of Afterwards.

Independent (London, England), January 21, 2007, Lesley McDowell, review of Afterwards; February 2, 2007, Katy Guest, review of Afterwards.

Kirkus Reviews, April 15, 2004, review of Field Study, p. 360; June 15, 2007, review of Afterwards.

Library Journal, May 1, 2001, David W. Henderson, review of The Dark Room, p. 128; May 15, 2004, Jenn B. Stidham, review of Field Study, p. 118; June 15, 2007, Barbara Hoffert, review of Afterwards, p. 58.

London Free Press, August 11, 2001, Nancy Schiefer, review of The Dark Room.

New York, August 6, 2001, Daniel Mendelsohn, "They're History."

New York Times Book Review, May 13, 2001, David Sacks, "Sins of the Fatherland," p. 30; August 12, 2007, Kathryn Harrison, "Truth or Consequences," review of Afterwards.

Observer (London, England), January 14, 2007, Francesca Segal, review of Afterwards.

Publishers Weekly, April 30, 2001, review of The Dark Room, p. 52; June 14, 2004, review of Field Study, p. 43; May 21, 2007, review of Afterwards, p. 32.

School Library Journal, February, 2005, Francisca Goldsmith, review of Field Study, p. 157.

Seattle Times, July 13, 2007, John Freeman, "Afterwards Explores How People Reveal Secrets."

Times (London, England), January 28, 2007, Lucy Hughes-Hallet, review of Afterwards.

Village Voice, July 3, 2007, Alexis Soloski, "Mute Witness; Novelist Rachel Seiffert on the Legacy of Battle." review of Afterwards.

Washington Post, July 29, 2001, Adam Kirsch, "Blow-up," p. T7.

ONLINE

Teenreads.com, http://www.teenreads.com/ (October 7, 2001), Jana Siciliano, review of The Dark Room.

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