The Ice Soldier
Henry Holt / 352 pages / $25
The adventuring mid-20th-century Englishmen in Paul Watkins' ninth novel, The Ice Soldier, generally show the world a stiff upper lip, but they're a dying breed. Watkins' book has utterly infectious vitality when it is following their Alpine exploits, but an elegiac feel when it is in town - elegiac for its characters' wavering spirit of dedication to an ideal of physical valor and courage. With the incursion of World War II and the fair facsimiles of hell it thrusts upon the characters, modern doubt and cynicism can be glimpsed gaining a foothold on their psyches.
The novel's action is framed by two perilous trips into the Italian Alps undertaken by an accomplished young mountaineer, Captain William Bromley. The first of these trips, a mission during wartime, finds him leading a team to install a beacon in the mountains that will help Allied planes safely cross over the area. It turns into a disaster, propelling Bromley into a shrunken postwar existence as a schoolteacher. The second trip is undertaken to discharge a far more personal debt and becomes a chance for recovery of Bromley's old values and idealism.
Before the war, Bromley is part of a group of devoted climbers "known as the Lucky Six, after the old dice-roller's expression." With the arrival of 1939 and war in Europe, the intrepid Six must scatter to their respective military assignments; fatefully, Bromley becomes a climbing instructor for the Royal Marines in Scotland. When he is asked to assemble a team to undertake a mountaineering mission to the glacier called the Dragon's Tongue, he calls on his old climbing partners; four out of five of them sign on for the task.
The war story that ensues is the most intense and rewarding material in The Ice Soldier, if also the most wrenching. We learn what happened on that mission in nauseous waves, as Bromley, preparing for and living through his second trip to the glacier a decade later, wills himself to remember the past, "a maze from which I had yet to escape."
Watkins doles out fragments of the story with shrewd reserve. His rendering of wartime and combat is moored to reality by a vivid array of tiny but enormously striking material details: the graininess of the chocolate that serves as emergency rations, for instance, or the "rotten-lung gasping" sound that a flare makes when it is exposing one's position to the enemy. I've seldom read a more precise and sensually anchored representation of deadly confusion than the gripping late scene in which Bromley and his men are surprised by an advance guard of the German army on their way to the glacier.
The same is true of Bromley's final journey to the Alps with his friend Stanley, the one member of the Lucky Six to have turned down the war mission. This time their quest is idiosyncratic and personal rather than patriotic, but it is no less harrowing. Watkins' writing is at its best when it is focused on the minutiae of human survival in inhospitable conditions and when it is steeped in the Alpine landscape's menacing beauty. The summit that Bromley and Stanley must attempt, Carton's Rock, memorably stands "by itself, and the first impression was of a ship with black sails, moving slowly through an ocean made of clouds. It was like a mirage, shimmering in the heat haze which rose off the ice."
On human strength and frailty in extreme circumstances, Watkins and the Ice Soldier are superb. While I was immersed in Bromley's Alpine adventures, you could not have pried this book from my hands with a crowbar. When it focuses elsewhere, however, the book is often only serviceable, leaning too heavily on bursts of exposition and straining to deliver symbols and metaphors that arrive overdressed or flat-footed. Its pat, happily-ever-after conclusion is especially unworthy of the churning darkness and daunting beauty of its best stretches.
Fortunately, however, not even a feeble Hollywood ending is enough to undermine the novel's rattling vision of men confronting the intractable forces of war and nature.
Laura Demanski is a writer living in Chicago. She maintains a blog about books and the arts at www.artsjournal.com/aboutlastnight.