Though I’m often wary of war fiction – can anything new still be written about World War I? – I was drawn to The Winter Soldier by the enthusiastic American reviews and the medical theme. The protagonist of psychiatrist Daniel Mason’s third novel, Lucius Krzelewski, comes from southern Polish nobility. In the 1910s medicine was a path for those seeking social mobility, but for Lucius neurology study is a way out of his stifling aristocratic household. Under Herr Doktor Zimmer’s tutelage in Vienna, he experiments on ways to make blood vessels visible. Dismayed to learn that Zimmer believes the “mermaid” in the medical school’s anatomical museum is real, he hurries to enlist when war begins in 1914.
As a 22-year-old medical lieutenant he’s stationed at a church turned into a regimental hospital at Lemnowice. Here Sister Margarete has been making do without a doctor in charge for two months. She’s been performing amputations and setting fractures in a lice-ridden building where hunger and typhoid are never far away. Lucius is ashamed of his ignorance compared to this skilled nurse; though he has textbook knowledge, he has no practical experience and has to learn on the job.
The following winter a Hungarian soldier suffering from “nervous shock” but no visible wounds is brought in, a sheaf of accomplished drawings padding his coat. For Lucius and Margarete, Sergeant József Horváth poses a particular challenge, which makes his recovery seem more like a resurrection: “they were both falling a little bit in love with their silent visitor or, more, with the cure that they had wrought.” Even as Lucius and Margarete fall in love and steal moments alone, they regret they couldn’t do more for Horváth. When Lucius and Margarete are separated, he vows to find her again – and make things right with Horváth.
I loved the novel’s first half, with its gallows humor, memorable scenes of gruesome medical procedures, and bleak conditions so convincing you’ll find yourself itching right along with the lice-plagued patients. But at about the halfway point the pace changes dramatically. Years pass and Lucius has various deployments and hospital positions. Curiously, although so much is happening to him outwardly, he’s stalled internally – haunted by thoughts of Margarete and Horváth. Perhaps this is why I felt the narrative slowed to a crawl. I could barely force myself to read more than five or 10 pages in a sitting, and the novel as a whole took me much longer to read than normal. Or maybe I was just missing Margarete, the most vibrant character.
Early on I was reminded of Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge and Hubert Mingarelli’s A Meal in Winter, lesser-known war novels in which the stark beauty of the writing tempers the somber subject matter. Partway through I started thinking of Ambrose Parry’s The Way of All Flesh, in which an unqualified female outshines a male in medical knowledge. By the end I was recalling epic separation-filled romances like The English Patient and Birdsong.
Though the novel’s second half never matched the strength of the first, I was at least pleased that Mason avoided a clichéd, Hollywood-ready ending in favor of a more fitting one that, while still somewhat far-fetched, makes sense of the title’s emphasis. This is a moving story of the physical and psychological effects of war, and I would certainly read more by Mason.
The Winter Soldier was published in the UK by Mantle on October 18th. With thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.