The two words in RED WINTER’s title call to mind opposite associations: red is hot, winter is cold. The clash between these two ideas echoes the tension that hums throughout the novel, with its politically charged backdrop of 1970s Sweden. Using a palette of similarly complementary colors, creator Anneli Furmark weaves a gorgeous tale about the search for human connection.
Overall, Furmark offers a valuable political message, memorable characters, and atmospheric artwork that combine to make RED WINTER a worthwhile January read from Drawn & Quarterly.
RED WINTER Is Politically Charged
One of the central conflicts of RED WINTER is the overlap between the political and the personal. The novel opens on a nighttime tryst between Siv and her lover Ulrik, 14 years her junior. Their secret relationship forms the core of the plot. Together, they grapple with excuses and accusations, the strains of keeping their affair private.
Before long, the consequences of their forbidden love seep into every corner of their world. Ulrik’s roommates grow suspicious and report him to his beloved Maoist Communist party. Likewise, a distressed Siv, who belongs to the rival Social Democratic party, comes clean about her affair to her husband and children. Eventually, even Siv and Ulrik’s political affiliations interfere with their ability to love one another. Their relationship poses a challenge to Siv’s fateful question: “But surely everything isn’t politics?”
The novel’s conflict ramps up during a scene of lovemaking in Ulrik’s bed. A poster of Karl Marx watches the naked lovers from the wall above. Ulrik finally confesses that it’s impossible for him “to separate life from politics,” an obstacle that will lead to the collapse of his and Siv’s worlds. Although theirs is a dystopia in which no private moment is safe from the watchful eye of politics, Siv and Ulrik’s relationship ultimately represents hope. It proves to readers that love is, in fact, possible across political divides.
At the end of RED WINTER, however, readers are left with an unresolved feeling. The plot winds down rapidly and distantly, with important news relayed to readers by fringe characters. This narrative choice only disappoints by leaving readers wanting more. If Furmark offers a sequel to RED WINTER, it will make this first installment stronger.
How RED WINTER Depicts the Loneliness We All Feel
In addition to telling a story of love and politics, RED WINTER is a sobering meditation on the nature of human connection. In Furmark’s Sweden, as stated by Siv, “it’s the capitalist system that makes people feel lonely and alienated…It could also be the cold…Winter and capitalism.” In the cold winter of a country on the brink of Communist revolution, every character remains cornered off from one another by invisible barriers. Only for brief moments do we glimpse people reaching across these barriers.
In fact, the story’s structure reinforces the notion of human alienation. Although all of the characters’ lives are interrelated, Furmark tells each of their stories in its own chapter. In addition to Siv and Ulrik, a host of wonderful characters share the pages of RED WINTER. We meet Siv’s daughter Marita, son Peter, and husband Börje, as well as Ulrik’s roommate and comrade Ralf. While every sub-heading focuses deeply on one of these different characters, it simultaneously isolates each character’s story from the rest. Even within the pages of the novel, every character is alone.
Similarly, dialogue in RED WINTER is short and succinct, oftentimes in speech bubbles far removed from the speaker’s mouth. In this way, characters have difficulty communicating fully with one another. Furmark’s gift is in creating lovable characters who we feel we know, despite their inability to transcend their own, private, internal worlds.
RED WINTER Is Like Visual Poetry
Perhaps the greatest strength of RED WINTER is its evocation of mood and atmosphere. From the very first line of the novel, RED WINTER reveals its interest in poetic moments. While poking fun at clichéd poetry about snow, Furmark’s narrator also partakes in the writing of a poem herself. Meanwhile, oversized chunks of white fill the sky. Watercolor washes of cool blue and warm gold suggest the many different colors of snow. With the beauty of both its text and its art, RED WINTER is brimming with the visual imagery of poetry.
Furmark deserves special credit for her breathtaking art. Scratchy, almost scribbled lines darken the background of every page, betraying an immense amount of time and labor. Black ink and uncertain outlines thrust the story into a time past, where colors are subdued and forms blurred. Artfully wobbly lines suggest the vagueness of memory. Furmark’s balance of blue and red hues recall the title of RED WINTER itself. Each aspect of Furmark’s art serves the greater purpose of her story.
Through her visuals, Furmark depicts the dark mood of winter, in every sense of the word. In RED WINTER, winter is not only the season between fall and spring. The novel also depicts Sweden’s winter, Siv’s winter — the end of their fruitful eras. Furmark’s washed-over, scratched-out images evoke nostalgia for these bygone times. Her art captures perfectly a sense of loss and of endings.
You Should Read RED WINTER
Overall, beautiful illustrations, likable characters, and believable conflicts make RED WINTER an engrossing read. It will catch your eye and your heart, and it won’t let go. If nothing else, the novel is worth reading only for Furmark’s meditations on art, politics, and the human condition.
RED WINTER was the first of Furmark’s eight graphic novels translated from Swedish into English. Hopefully, English readers can look forward to many more. Until then, keep an eye out for your own copy of RED WINTER from Drawn & Quarterly here.