All The Books I Can Read

1 girl….2 many books!

Review: The Winter Soldier by Daniel Mason

on October 18, 2018

The Winter Soldier 
Daniel Mason
Pan Macmillan AUS
2018, 336p
Copy courtesy of the publisher

Blurb {from the publisher/}:

By the international bestselling author of The Piano Tuner, a sweeping and unforgettable love story of a young doctor and nurse at a remote field hospital in the First World War.

Vienna, 1914. Lucius is a twenty-two-year-old medical student when World War I explodes across Europe. Enraptured by romantic tales of battlefield surgery, he enlists, expecting a position at a well-organized field hospital. But when he arrives, at a commandeered church tucked away high in a remote valley of the Carpathian Mountains, he finds a freezing outpost ravaged by typhus. The other doctors have fled, and only a single, mysterious nurse named Sister Margarete remains.

But Lucius has never lifted a surgeon’s scalpel. And as the war rages across the winter landscape, he finds himself falling in love with the woman from whom he must learn a brutal, makeshift medicine. Then one day, an unconscious soldier is brought in from the snow, his uniform stuffed with strange drawings. He seems beyond rescue, until Lucius makes a fateful decision that will change the lives of doctor, patient, and nurse forever.

From the gilded ballrooms of Imperial Vienna to the frozen forests of the Eastern Front; from hardscrabble operating rooms to battlefields thundering with Cossack cavalry, The Winter Soldier is the story of war and medicine, of family, of finding love in the sweeping tides of history, and finally, of the mistakes we make, and the precious opportunities to atone.

So many books remind me how bad my historical knowledge is and this one is one of those. I’ve read a lot about WWII and I’m pretty confident in my knowledge of that conflict. What I know about WWI however, I’ve come to realise is very little. I know how it started, with the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife which led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia. It’s what happened after that in this part of the world that I’ve realised I don’t know much about. Australian schooling taught me mostly just about Australia’s involvement with a huge focus on Gallipoli and France. Austria-Hungary was ‘the other side’ so they weren’t really given much air time!

So in this book, Lucius is the son of wealthy Polish parents living in Vienna – he’s a bit of an ‘afterthought’ I think. A late in life birth after his parents already had quite a few children. He wants to be a doctor and proves to have some aptitude for this however war is declared whilst he is still studying and a shortage of medical personnel means that anyone who is a certain way into their studies will be recognised as a doctor and sent to medical hospitals treating the soldiers of war. Lucius seems to have romantic ideas of what this may entail, perhaps motivated by a friend and fellow student of this who tells him wonderful stories of what he’s getting to do. Lucius is sent to a Church converted into a field hospital in a rural area of the Carpathian Mountains and finds that the team consists of just him and a nun named Sister Margarete. Despite the fact that Lucius is afforded the title and respect of ‘Doctor’ he has never wielded a scalpel – at least not on a living person anyway. He relies heavily on Sister Margarete, whose abilities and knowledge seemingly have no end.

This is quite gruesomely graphic about the challenges administering medical treatment to soldiers in a draughty church with unreliable deliveries of supplies and food. Lucius becomes intrigued by a patient who appears to have no physical injuries but appears to be deeply disturbed in the mind. It begins his interest in mental health medicine in what must’ve been a rudimentary study of shellshock/PTSD and attempt to treat it. At a time where the high ups just need bodies on the ground fighting, no one cares about injuries that cannot be seen. Lucius develops quite an attachment to this patient and it’s something that has long lasting effects on the both of them, something that ends up haunting Lucius and perhaps even frames his post-war medical career when the fighting finally stops.

This is perhaps not the sort of book I’d probably choose to read had I not received it for review, although the cover is eye catching. But I don’t tend to read a lot of medically focused books and although I enjoyed this, I didn’t really love it. I actually think Sister Margarete was a far more interesting character than Lucius and I really wanted to learn more about her, such as how she learned to do those amputations. Surely it wasn’t just observing the doctors prior to Lucius arriving at the hospital? Maybe it was but her knowledge was vast and varied and it was quite obvious that there was a lot more to her than meets the eye. There were several women in Lucius’ classes he was undertaking so it was possible she was a qualified doctor. These things I wanted to know. The further we got into the story and as her and Lucius developed more of a relationship, the more it became apparent that everything we knew about her probably wasn’t true.

This was really interesting for insight into a wartime hospital in a remote location with challenging weather conditions. It’s very far removed from what I know here in Australia so I appreciated that and it gave me a chance to also explore some information about WWI so that I could better understand what was happening. I also found the early psychiatry into studying and treating what would now be termed PTSD fascinating too and I admired Lucius’ dedication. Not sure the resolution of several plot threads satisfied me though.


Book #175 of 2018

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