At the beginning of Paul Watkins’s outstanding new novel The Ice Soldier (Henry Holt, 352 pages), narrator William Bromley embraces his quiet life. Just six years before, he served as a British soldier during World War II, and he now teaches English at a small boys’ school. To pass the time, he plays cards with two colleagues, avoids the woman he has a crush on, and meets for a weekly wine binge with his old friend Stanley. When the appearance of a former comrade Sugden triggers intense flashbacks to a failed mission in the Italian Alps, Bromley knows he is in trouble. His best friend Stanley does not understand his crisis, and instead presses him to meet the new love of his life, Helen Paradise (“Hell and Paradise?”), who, unlike the two men, has not given up mountaineering. Bromley seems destined to lead a quiet but tortured life while Stanley heads toward the inevitable break-up with Helen. When Stanley’s uncle Carton ensures that the “Society of Former Mountaineers,” as Stanley and Bromley call themselves, will disband, the two men find themselves faced with their internal demons in ways neither had imagined.
At the center of this novel lies Carton’s Rock, a “jagged pinnacle of stone and ice which rose almost sheer out of a glacier.” Named after Stanley’s uncle Carton, the only person said to have reached its summit, the peak–or rather, the idea of it–has become a kind of tourist attraction in London, where Carton makes a living out of his retelling of his harrowing expedition. To Bromley, Carton’s Rock carries its own diabolical memories, ones which threaten to cripple him every day. Still, he is drawn to the stark beauty of it rising out of the treacherous glacier. Stanley sees Carton’s Rock as a symbol of his uncle’s control, and he rebels against it, although as a younger man he would have liked to scale it. Even Helen has seen the Rock, and, safe in London, she regrets not getting closer to it. This duality, of both desire and desperate distance, gives The Ice Soldier its shape.
Watkins evokes post-World War II Britain with the same astonishing clarity that he uses to describe the abject loneliness of the mountain climber and his adversary, the mountain itself. The narrator’s flashbacks to the war are vivid and horrifying. The most accomplished aspect of this novel, however, is how Watkins gets into the hearts of his characters with the surety of his razor-like prose. As the characters get closer to Carton’s Rock and all that it symbolizes, the rawness of what lies inside each is exposed much like the bones of Archie, the skeleton Carton seats at the head of his London dinner table. The metaphor of the mountaineer as losing everything but his bones, of being stripped of flesh and spit back out decades after being swallowed by a glacier, serves as a warning to the characters, who must learn the truth not by dreaming about it, but by climbing. The reader is only too willing to accompany them.
I cannot recommend this novel highly enough. Watkins knows how to not only tell a compelling story, but to make it linger in the minds of his readers.
— Debbie Lee Wesselmann, author of Trutor and the Balloonist (1997) and Captivity (2008).
“Is he dead?” I opened my eyes.
The face of an old woman came slowly into focus.
I knew I wasn’t dead.
What I didn’t know was how I came to be lying on a rain-soaked London street in June of 1950.
My name is William Bromley and, until that moment, I had lived secure in the belief that the gods were looking out for me.
Firstly, through nothing more than luck, I had survived the war.
Secondly, despite the fact that jobs were far from plentiful, I had a steady post as a teacher at a small private school in London called St. Vernon’s. This provided me with long holidays and time to take advantage of my membership at the Montague Club, where I had many acquaintances but very few close friends. Nor did I have any romantic attachments, which suited me just fine.
Thirdly, I had a place in the country, where I could spend my holidays. This was thanks to my father, who lived in a quiet Cotswold village named Painswick. When the school term ended, I traveled there by train and spent my days rambling through the woods, or hiking up a bald-topped hill that overlooked the distant mountains of Wales.
It does not sound like a very exciting kind of life, and indeed it wasn’t. I’d had all the excitement I wanted for one lifetime in September of 1944. I felt like a man who had once been granted three wishes by a turbaned, cross-legged genie out of a lamp, and who had since spent two of those wishes just to stay alive. I kept that third wish in reserve, hoping that I’d never have to rub the magic lamp again.
Up to now, everything had been going more or less perfectly, but one thing the gods will not stand for is the joy of perfection among us mortals. Even the tiniest whiff of such contentment and they begin to scheme, plotting the chaos that will bring this happiness to an end. It is a law of the universe that anything perfect must be wrecked for its audacity in claiming to be so.
Something you can say in the gods’ favor is that they aren’t boring in the way they go about wrecking it. Each time, they use a different strategy. This keeps life interesting, I suppose, during those dull days up on Mount Olympus. Their methods even have a morbid sense of humor, although if you are, as I was, the butt of the joke, it’s sometimes hard to see it at the time.