Daniel Mason transports us back to the time where the world came under the heel of war. Detailed romance backdropped by universal ugliness is difficult to pull off, but Mason nails it.
Author Daniel Mason’s qualifications as a physician come through in his descriptions of the medical procedures found throughout The Winter Soldier, but he has a fine hand when it comes to prose – it’s seldom lofty or all too highbrow. The novel – his third – is one of detail and precision, much like that of a surgeon, as the world around his central characters goes to hell amid the front lines of WWI-era Europe. Mason’s clearly solid understanding of the world he’s describing harks back – for this reviewer at least – to the 2009 novel Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. Same level of insight, both scientific and at the same time constructed with a poet’s eye. Both authors know how to tell a story, and both know what it’s like then things go wrong when someone is under your knife.
The book says a lot about Europe and how its face changed in the advent of the first world war – the identities of Czechs, Austrians and Poles all changing with shifting borders and the various victories and defeats which befell them. But in the interim, there’s a sense of dread, of unending torment that comes from this novel’s setting – either on the front lines or amid hospitals as thousands begin to be cut down.
Mason shows in The Winter Solider how adept he is at creating vivid pictures of parts of the world you’d think would be foreign to most – given its time and place in history. He throws his characters into the deep end of a story rich in detail, but occasionally lacking in narrative momentum. The centre of it, or at least one of the narrative and thematic cores to the piece, is a romance. Upon said romance is an inevitable separation, so the reunion these star cross’d lovers are destined to share is all but preordained. In the interim, we do occasionally slog through the minutiae of a new locale (a more civilised Vienna, as opposed to the stark conditions on the front) to get where the book suggests its going.
The novel is one of detail and precision, much like that of a surgeon, as the world around his central characters goes to hell amid the front lines of WWI-era Europe.
The author’s insight into medicine and diagnostics does give a unique and interesting insight as to PTSD, but the setting allows him to frame it in the infancy of its diagnosis – this odd mental state afflicting soldiers having returned from the front – and a particularly harrowing sequence showing a higher up officer not accepting a soldier’s mental state as anything less than laziness. It harked back to the famous “slapping” sequence in the 1970 film Patton – the kid needed a lie down, but old blood ‘n’ guts thought he was being lazy.
Students of history will doubtlessly be impressed by the depth of Mason’s coverage of the time period; so too will doctors who could probably spot his expertise on the page and distinguish first-hand knowledge from sought-out research. It’s quite the literary feast, rich in regional flavour, and the product of significant understanding. A page turner it might not be, but the quality within makes up for the lacking “wow” factor.