Cap­ti­vat­ing story of a bat­tle sur­geon’s bap­tism of fire in love and war

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Books - RE­VIEW BY ALAS­TAIR MABBOTT

The Win­ter Sol­dier Daniel Ma­son (Man­tle, £16.99)

EVEN if it didn’t go on to re­late a com­pelling rites of pas­sage tale that sweeps from the sa­lons of Vi­enna to a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal in the frozen Carpathi­ans, and back again, the open­ing sec­tion of The Win­ter Sol­dier would be a cap­ti­vat­ing read. It takes place in a tran­si­tional era when the X-ray ma­chine is a med­i­cal in­no­va­tion of un­tapped po­ten­tial, but medicine is still taught by haughty be­whiskered old men in the­atres that have changed lit­tle in a cen­tury.

Raised in Vi­enna in a wealthy fam­ily of Pol­ish de­scent, Lu­cius Krzelewski, 22, has been study­ing medicine for three years. Un­com­fort­able and awk­ward in so­cial sit­u­a­tions, he’s highly in­tel­li­gent and schol­arly, show­ing such prom­ise that he’s taken un­der the wing of an old pro­fes­sor for a project to use X-rays to ob­serve blood flow in the liv­ing brain, both of them nurs­ing “the dream of be­ing able to see an­other per­son’s think­ing”. Like what fol­lows, it’s so well re­searched and metic­u­lously evoked that one can al­most smell the chem­i­cals in the lab and vi­su­alise the paint­ings in Lu­cius’s par­ents’ up­mar­ket home.

But the First World War in­ter­venes, and a physi­cian short­age means that stu­dents like Lu­cius are be­ing given re­spon­si­ble jobs tend­ing to en­tire reg­i­ments. He is posted, in deadly mid-win­ter, to Lem­now­ice in Poland, where he finds him­self in charge of an un­der-staffed, un­der-equipped and rat­in­fested field hos­pi­tal set up in a church. Up un­til this point, his high­est med­i­cal achieve­ment has been to sy­ringe wax from a deaf man’s ears, and now he has to learn from scratch how to treat hor­ri­fy­ing com­bat wounds and carry out daily am­pu­ta­tions.

Luck­ily, Sis­ter Mar­garete is there to help him through his bap­tism of fire. The young nun run­ning the hos­pi­tal is a marvel: strong, coura­geous, ded­i­cated,

sto­ical and opin­ion­ated, she makes the most of their stretched re­sources and keeps the place go­ing in ap­palling con­di­tions. She also sees at once that Lu­cius is not the qual­i­fied doc­tor he makes out. As the months go by, and win­ter be­comes spring, Lu­cius learns how to be a com­pe­tent hands-on bat­tle sur­geon but also de­vel­ops feel­ings for Mar­garete, feel­ings which he sus­pects are re­cip­ro­cated.

But there are harsh tri­als to come. Be­ing able to “see an­other per­son’s think­ing” might have pre­vented a lot of suf­fer­ing, and not just when it comes to Mar­garete. The ar­rival of a sol­dier af­flicted with the baf­fling new con­di­tion of shell shock threat­ens to over­turn all the good he’s done.

Ma­son has honed his craft over two pre­vi­ous nov­els, The Piano Tuner and A Far Coun­try, and The Win­ter Sol­dier is beau­ti­fully, el­e­gantly writ­ten, the prose pitched at a level where it feels rich and lus­trous but at the same time trans­par­ent and de­void of pom­pos­ity. Con­stantly car­ry­ing the reader for­ward, it’s a novel to get lost in.

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