Paul Watkins

"The Ice Soldier"

(Reviewed by Debbie Lee Wesselmann JAN 29, 2006)

"In the mountains, you learned who you were, for better or worse."

At the beginning of Paul Watkins's outstanding new novel The Ice Soldier, 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.  He has become a man of routine.  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 best friend Stanley.  As he tells the reader, "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."  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.  Stanley, who once shared with him a passion for mountain climbing and who now avoids it with him, does not understand Bromley's crisis, since Stanley himself did not serve in the war and instead worked for his father making canned meats for soldiers.  Oblivious to his friend's discomfort, Stanley 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. Carton, a showboating lecturer and famous mountaineer, hints at the importance of mountaineering for them all:  "'There are those who climb . . . and those who dream of climbing. For some, the dream is all they need, and perhaps they are the lucky ones.  But not all of us can be content with dreams alone.  We are drawn up to the stony rafters of the world, like migrating animals who travel thousands of miles without knowing why they do this, only knowing that they must."   Survival becomes the only mechanism of the human psyche that works in the frigid temperatures and high altitudes.

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 called La Lingua del Dragone, the Dragon's Tongue."  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 expedition, his sheer will to survive, and the glorious views from its summit to those not adventurous enough to risk their lives to see it themselves.  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 his precise prose:  "He must have known that no one would understand such loneliness, not in the million-faced whirlwind of the city or even here, in this tiny Italian village.  On the glacier's ice, there were no lights of cozy fires, no sound of church bells in the distance.  There was only the angry sun or the blind eye of the moon, enough to make a person feel as if he'd been marooned on an empty planet, that all the people he had ever met were only dreams, and that he was alone and had always been alone."   As the characters get closer to Carton's Rock and all that it symbolizes, the rawness of what lies inside each is as exposed as 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.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 8 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Ice Soldier at author's website

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About the Author:

Paul WatkinsPaul Watkins was born in 1964 to Welsh parents who relocated to the US and then sent him to boarding school in the UK. He was educated at the Dragon School, Eton College, Syracuse and Yale University.

His first novel, Night over Day over Night was nominated for The Booker Prize. Calm at Sunset, Calm at Dawn won the Encore Prize for best second novel. All of his books have received outstanding critical praise and his writing has been compared to Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad.

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