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 all by itself. It takes place in a transitional era when the X-ray machine is an exciting 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 is 22 and has been studying medicine for the past 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 rat-infested 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. Only a year or two older than Lucius, 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, Mason’s 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, one you can look up from and find that hours have passed.