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February 7, 2006

OGIC: Half a book

I was in the Baltimore Sun last weekend with a review of Paul Watkins's novel about English mountaineers in World War II, The Ice Soldier. I found it a starkly divided book, half of it spectacular and half of it pedestrian. All of the best parts took place in the Italian Alps; describing exigent circumstances and this particular landscape seems to bring out the best in Watkins's writing, and when it is good, it is very, very good:

[Watkins's] 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.... 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.

And when it is bad, it is...not horrid exactly, but certainly no better than so-so. Still, on balance, I'd recommend this book if the mountaineering or war angles strike a chord for you.

Posted February 7, 2006 1:34 AM

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