The Winter Soldier
Vienna, 1914. Lucius is a twenty-two-year-old medical student when World War One explodes across Europe. Enraptured by romantic tales of battlefield surgery, he enlists, expecting a position at a well-organized field hospital. But when he arrives, at a commandeered church tucked away high in a remote valley of the Carpathian Mountains, he finds a freezing outpost ravaged by typhus. The other doctors have fled, and only a single, mysterious nurse named Sister Margarete remains.
But Lucius has never lifted a surgeon’s scalpel. And as the war rages across the winter landscape, he finds himself falling in love with the woman from whom he must learn a brutal, makeshift medicine. Then one day, an unconscious soldier is brought in from the snow, his uniform stuffed with strange drawings. He seems beyond rescue, until Lucius makes a fateful decision that will change the lives of doctor, patient and nurse forever.
From the gilded ballrooms of Imperial Vienna to the frozen forests of the Eastern Front; from hardscrabble operating rooms to battlefields thundering with Cossack cavalry, The Winter Soldier is the story of war and medicine, of family, of finding love in the sweeping tides of history, and, finally, of the mistakes we make, and the precious opportunities to atone.
Lucius Krzelewski is a young student with an immense passion for medicine. His knowledge is admired by the professors and is the source of much envy for fellow students. From a wealthy, well-known family in Vienna, Lucius lives a privileged life, if a slightly lonely one. Whilst his mother and father host grand parties and soak up the complements and attention from guests, Lucius feels withdrawn and distant, constantly struggling to fit into the same bracket as his parents. When World War One breaks out across Europe, his close friend suggests enlisting. Hoping he will finally be able to put all he has learned into practise, Lucius does just so and he is drafted to a small village called Lemnowice in the Carpathian Mountains.
There he finds a commandeered church in a dire state. It is teeming with soldiers desperately clinging to life, not a speck of hope in their eyes. With a bomb hole in the centre of the church, rats dodging between the beds and wolves hunting for a way to get in, it is only just holding up. Leading the men on a path of survival is nurse, Sister Margarete, a strict young women who works with kindness and determination. Lucius is daunted by the task ahead of him. But to heal the sick and curb death when it comes calling, he will have to be stalwart in his courage.
The characterisation is superb. Lucius, Margarete and the rest are so well developed, each with their own eccentricities that really draw the reader in. I came to really care about Lucius and was with him every step of the way. Over his time at the church caring for the soldiers, he mends wounds from every type of bullet, stitches and sews up lacerations, amputates all day every day and heals ailments that could turn your stomach. The descriptions are vivid and rich in detail which allows the reader to grow a good image of what Lucius’s working with.
Daniel Mason captures a broad scope of emotion in these pages. It is a masterful depiction of the atrocity of war and a bittersweet exploration of love grown amidst waves of torment and tragedy. Whatever it might be, you inevitably lift something from the words in this book and carry it with you past the final page. Achingly beautiful, heartbreaking and bittersweet, it is a hugely evocative, poignant novel. Highly recommend!
Emotional. Evocative. Bittersweet.
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About Daniel Mason
Daniel Mason is a physician and author of the novels The Piano Tuner and A Far Country. His work has been translated into twenty-eight languages, and adapted for opera and theatre. A recipient of a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, he is currently a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University, where he teaches courses in the humanities and medicine. He lives in the Bay Area with his family. The Winter Soldier is his third novel.
Huge thanks to Camilla Elworthy and Mantle for my review copy!