Daniel Mason: The Winter Soldier

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It’s been a while since I’ve written here but plenty of reading has been going on; an inevitable part of the life of a book editor. But there have also been books chosen by my book club (like Jonathan Coe’s brilliant Middle England), books recommended by friends (like Madeline Miller’s Circe) and those simply picked up in a bookshop while I’ve been browsing. A Winter Soldier fits into this last category. I think there was one of those little ‘recommended’ cards attached to it in Waterstones, but I’ve always had an attraction to reading works set in World War One, from the poetry of Wilfred Owen and others, to Pat Barker’s glorious Regeneration trilogy and Sebastian Faulks’ early and brilliant novel, Birdsong.

I haven’t been quite so absorbed by a novel for a while and have hardly been able to put it down over the past couple of days. The story opens in 1915 as Lucius, a young Austrian trainee doctor, reaches the desolate winter lands of North Hungary on his way to take up a position in a remote Polish field hospital. ‘He was twenty-two years old, restless, resentful of hierarchy, impatient for his training to come to an end.’ He’s left his home in Vienna in the hope of at last finding a chance to get the medical experience he yearns for, frustrated by the teaching he’s so far received. And he’s fought against the wishes of his privileged and wealthy parents, who don’t think being a doctor is a ‘proper’ or suitable career for their son and would prefer him to go to war as a soldier.

An accidental sixth child, Lucius knew ‘from the beginning he hadn’t belonged among them’. Perhaps this feeling of being an outsider fuelled his determination. Just as maybe the tortuous instruments a doctor fits into his mouth to ‘cure’ his childhood stutter, gives birth to a conviction that there are more effective and kinder ways of healing damaged people than the horrific treatments he witnesses in the medical school. Far away in a remote corner of Poland, he unexpectedly finds himself the only doctor in the hospital where he’s been sent; set up in a church with horrifically wounded men lying between pews. Impossibly unprepared and inexperienced, he finds the nurse in charge, a nun, extraordinarily competent. From Margarete he learns almost everything, from how to do amputations to the importance of hygiene, the cleaning of wounds – something yet not understood back in Vienna. But then the Winter Soldier arrives and this disturbs the rhythm of the life Lucius has built with Margarete and nothing will ever be the same again.

Part war story, part romance, part a history of medicine – particularly the beginning of understanding, or trying to, the workings of the mind – this is above all a story of determination and courage; mistakes made and the longing for atonement. Mason’s background as a doctor gives a strong authenticity to his descriptions of battlefield surgery and treatments, while his understanding of emotions, fears and relationships gives a powerful urgency to the story.

The writing is simply beautiful and often lyrical: ‘April turned to May … The sun grew warmer. The snow began to melt. Harp strings of light broke through the nave. Everywhere the valley was filled with crinkling whispers, the whine of shifting snowdrifts, the rustling of rills. Beneath the ice, the river began to murmur.’ Single sentences say so much, as when Margarete responds to the warming weather: ‘In her step, he noticed a new lightness, which he hadn’t known she’d lost.’

I don’t want to detail the story too much here; I just want to encourage you to read the book. For The Winter Soldier is a remarkable book, a true tour de force.