A Rifle-Wielding Nun, a Medical Student and a Crackling World War I Tale (New York Times Book Review)
THE WINTER SOLDIER
By Daniel Mason
336 pp. Little, Brown & Company. $28.
“The Winter Soldier,” Daniel Mason’s excellent World War I novel, begins with a murky X-ray of the human brain. “The light was hazy, like puffs of smoke blown into the skull. Nothing to see … just cloudy shades of gray and lighter gray, tricks of shadow that played upon the eye and yielded nothing. And yet! Thought was there.” It’s a tantalizing image from a historical moment fraught with scientific possibility and geopolitical peril. While Marie Curie and Sigmund Freud were peering inside the body and mind, Europe was sleepwalking toward a war that would tear open both with horrifying efficiency.
Lucius Krzelewski, the young man transfixed by this X-ray, is the accidental, expendable sixth child of a prominent Vienna-based Polish family. (His mother has Klimt paint him out of a mother-son portrait.) The Great War promises to enrich the Krzelewski mining company, but to ward off accusations of profiteering, they need a family war hero, preferably fallen. Lucius’ mother ensures her son — a medical student with no surgical experience — is posted to an abandoned first-aid station in Lemnowice, a Carpathian hamlet on a savage stretch of the Eastern Front.
Regardless of the chain of command, the real authority in Lemnowice is Sister Margarete, a rifle-wielding nun and virtuoso of the imperative mood. She’s a marvelous character, prone to violence and good dialogue — she’d be the last person standing in any Quentin Tarantino film. As one might expect from a nun who knows her way around a Mannlicher, there’s more to Margarete than meets the eye. To risk a spoiler by saying more would be sacrilege.
With a cast of oddball orderlies, Margarete and Lucius transform a dilapidated church into a field hospital. The most haunting casualties are anatomically intact, but mentally maimed. It’s here that Mason, a professor of psychiatry by day, really shines. PTSD is still decades away from being recognized, and shellshocked soldiers are assumed cowards or malingerers. The arrival of a disturbed Hungarian with sheafs of exquisite drawings insulating his greatcoat revives Lucius’ mission to see into the human brain. These sketches offer windows onto the man’s shattered mind, deepening the field of focus on the lasting consequence of trauma.
As Margarete and Lucius treat the Hungarian, an unexpected romance develops. Mason prevents this from rising to melodrama by anchoring their affair within the routine horrors of the hospital. The operating table is a pew, surgical thread is scavenged from the seams of patients’ clothes and there’s the real risk of wolves (or worse) marauding through the sick bay. This is a world that has slipped the moorings of realism, where the unbelievable becomes a daily occurrence. Here, the consolations of love become a kind of contraband sanity, costly and finite, smuggled in from points no longer visible on the map.
Despite its serious concerns, “The Winter Soldier” brims with improbable narrative pleasures. Mason is a practitioner of storytelling backhandedly praised as “old-fashioned.” In fact, it’s timeless. These pages crackle with excitement — and charging cavalries, false identities, arranged marriages, scheming industrialists and missing persons. Enemy philatelists rendezvous in no-man’s land to trade stamps while Viennese children play in model trenches. Within the meticulously researched and magnificently realized backdrop of European dissolution, Mason finds his few lost souls, and shepherds them toward an elusive peace.
Lucius’ “dream of being able to see another person’s thinking” is not only the controlling metaphor of “The Winter Soldier,” but the work of literature more broadly. Lucius may fail, but the novel he carries is a spectacular success.
UPDATE: If you click on the book title, it will take you to the Amazon page so that you can order it.
FLAMINGO BOOK CLUB - 2020
LITTLE FIRES EVERYWHERE by Celeste Ng
THE WINTER SOLDIER by Daniel Mason
THE RADIUM GIRLS by Kate Moore
MIRACLE CREEK by Angie Kim
AN ELDERLY LADY IS UP TO NO GOOD by Henene Tursten
THE GREAT ALONE by Kirsten Hanna
(Everyone brings a dish)
SAVE ME THE PLUMS by Ruth Reichl
TOUCHED BY THE SUN by Carly Simon
NEWS OF THE WORLD by Paulette Jiles
THE ORPHANS TALE or THE LOST GIRLS OF PARIS by Pam Jenoff
(Gift book exchange)
HOLIDAY ON ICE by David Sedaris