Published by W. W. Norton & Company on January 17, 2017
We are told in the first paragraph of The Winter in Anna that Anna died a gruesome, self-inflicted death. The next paragraphs reveal that Eric, the narrator, will tell us Anna’s story, letting us decide for ourselves whether it is a tragedy. I’d vote yes, because even self-made disasters can be tragic and because the real tragedy is that, for some people, both life and death require unimaginable courage.
Eric met Anna while he was a young man covering high school athletic events for a weekly newspaper in Shannon, a small North Dakota town. He is quickly elevated to the position of editor (which also requires him to be a news reporter), a position he doesn’t want because it forces him to deal with the reality of life. Anna writes the middle page stories “that pretend to be news,” and Eric admires her ability to observe and describe without intruding, a skill he believes has vanished from modern journalism.
Eric’s story of meeting Anna segues into the story of Anna’s life, as Eric pieced it together from Anna’s memories and those of her acquaintances and co-workers. Something is a bit off about Anna, and as Eric learns more about her life, it is clear that essential facts are being withheld or misstated. All we know at first is that Anna (as she frequently tells Eric) is “done with men.” Eventually we learn why.
We also learn about Eric’s past and present, including the fallback college girlfriend who reenters his life in North Dakota. But while so much of the story is about the past, it is really about letting go of the past. Anna’s advice to Eric is: “Just let everything heal. Don’t turn it into a badge.” Having turned her own scars into a badge, Anna speaks from experience. As the novel unfolds, both Eric and Anna struggle to find a path to move forward, to find a way to live a bearable life.
And we learn about other characters, their surfaces and depths, their superficial smiles and hidden pain. Eric lives in a small town that holds small town secrets, indiscretions that urban dwellers wouldn’t notice or care about. One of the novel’s lessons is “Don’t judge what you don’t understand” -- a timely and sorely needed lesson about staying out of other people’s business.
Some of the characters actually find happiness, and perhaps a chance at lasting happiness. Good for them. Yet the fundamental question that The Winter in Anna asks is “how the gentle, sustaining light leaks out of life.” Anna is like millions of other single mothers. She doesn’t have much but she has her children and she loves them fiercely. Why, then, is her story tragic? Read the book to learn the answer.
Tragedy aside, The Winter in Anna is ultimately about a sliver of time, unplanned circumstances that bring two people together for less than an eyeblink in the history of humanity. We’re here and then we’re gone, the novel seems to say, and what we do when we’re here really doesn’t matter in the larger scheme of things. Unless it does. One human can touch another in ways we never appreciate until years have passed. The questions Reed Karaim raises in elegant prose have many possible answers, and the beauty of this surprising and touching novel lies in the opportunity it gives readers to choose among them.