Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Review time! with ‘Red Winter’

“But if your hopes should pass away, simply pretend that you can build them again”

Anneli Furmark, a Swedish comic creator, brings us Red Winter, her first comic that has been translated (by Hanna Strömberg) into English, so that’s nice. It’s published by Drawn & Quarterly, purveyors of the finest highbrow comics out there! Let’s take a look!

Given that Furmark is Swedish and was born in 1962, it might surprise you that this book is set in Sweden during the 1970s. It’s almost as if you should write what you know! It’s a love story, but it’s not a terribly happy one. Siv is a married 38-year-old who, at the beginning of the book, has been carrying on an affair with 24-year-old Ulrik. Even at the beginning, we know things are fraught in their lives, as Siv asks Ulrik if he’s ever been out on the islands and he says he has, but he’s not allowed to tell her more. Ulrik, we discover, is a Communist, and Siv is not, so he has to keep her in the dark about his activities. So not only is Siv sneaking around, so is Ulrik, but for a different reason, and already in the early stages of the book we get the sense that things will not end well.

Furmark tells the story in an interesting way, as each chapter focuses on a different character in the drama, from Siv’s children to Ulrik’s friends to Siv’s husband. Ulrik has slowly become a less effective Communist (his friend manages to give away far more pamphlets than he does in one scene, because Ulrik’s heart just doesn’t seem to be into it), and he’s living with his immediate superior. Siv’s children, meanwhile, are experiencing their own kinds of growing pains, as they move through their teen years. Siv’s husband, Börje, is a supervisor at a construction site, so he has issues with the Communists as well. The community is small, so of course everyone knows everyone else, and as Siv and Ulrik slowly lose their privacy, their lives get harder and harder. Siv, most notably, got married young and started having children, and it’s clear she has never really lived, and Ulrik makes her feel free. Furmark does a nice job not condemning or condoning her – and anyone else’s – behavior, just showing how things happen. Siv’s daughter, who is closest to Siv, slowly begins to realize that her mom has a life outside of being a mother. Ulrik begins to realize that the Communists might not be the best fit for him even though he believes in what they’re doing. There’s a nice quiet sense of humor in the book, too, as Furmark pokes a bit of fun at the Communists’ lack of humor. The Communists have some good ideas, but she also points out that they’re far from perfect – with the benefit of hindsight, their view of “Kampuchea” is wildly naïve, for instance. We know this is all going to come crashing down, but Furmark does a good job at unspooling things slowly, so it’s more engrossing and painful when it does. She sets it during the Swedish winter, of course, so it’s dark a lot, and there’s just a good sense of chilliness in the way the characters act – they’re always painfully polite even as they tear apart each others’ lives. It’s a very effective way of showing how devastating the affair is to everyone involved, because the emotions are muted, as if everyone is stunned by what’s going on.

The art contributes to this feeling, as Furmark uses the setting well to create a sense of foreboding. It’s dark, of course, and often snowing, so the people stay inside a lot, which adds to the atmosphere of secrecy. Usually, when people are having an affair, they meet indoors, but Siv and Ulrik usually meet outside, because no one wants to be outside in the Swedish winter. Furmark contrasts the wintry outside with the claustrophobic comfort of the interiors, where everyone is wearing sweaters and sitting on big sofas under thick blankets. There’s a starkness to the one scene where Siv and Ulrik are naked together (the book remains PG-13, though) because we don’t see that much skin anywhere else in the book, and their nakedness becomes a metaphor for how they’ve peeled away the layers separating them. Her attention to detail in the clothing – very 1970s without being obnoxious – is nice, too, because these people need to be clothed so much. Even when Ulrik is interrogated about his relationship with Siv by his comrades, he’s wearing a comfortable sweater while his superior is wearing a more proletarian work shirt … colored red, naturally. The coloring in the book is very nice – lots of blues, of course, but the warm oranges intrude nicely, creating a comforting space that Furmark later upends when orange is used on Ulrik as he’s interrogated. Furmark does a nice job with the woebegone Ulrik and the mousy Siv, showing their strength in small ways that belie their outward appearances. It’s a nice-looking book.

I like romances that feel real, where the people engaged in them have issues that can interfere with that love without being too melodramatic. Furmark does a nice job showing us the realities of a time and place that could stop two people from being together, even if it’s not a life-and-death situation. I also like romances between mature people, and Siv and Ulrik both understand that the world does not bend to their will, so they have to take their chances for happiness where they can, realizing that it might not last and it might wreck their lives. Red Winter is a sad book in many ways, but it’s also engaging and thoughtful. Who doesn’t like a story about Commies in love?

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆

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