Click here to read reviewer Michael Leonard's take on The Ice Soldier.
Five years after World War II ended, William Bromley has attempted to recreate the semblance of a normal life by teaching in a London boarding school and spending idle hours with lifelong friend, Stanley; both belong to the ironic “Society of Former Mountaineers.”
In spite of Stanley’s cavalier attitude about life in general, William remains haunted by the past, especially his failure at an important mission as a leader of an army climbing team charged with planting a honing device in the Alps that would allow Allied planes to navigate safely home.
Stanley’s uncle, the legendary mountaineer Henry Carton, induces William and his fellow climbers to undertake the failed mission, deeply disappointed by his nephew’s refusal to accompany the climbers. Stanley chooses to avoid participation in the war, so the responsibility falls squarely on William’s shoulders, the experienced climber’s route filled with the extraordinary treachery of the majestic terrain, and near Carton’s Rock, Henry’s one claim to mountaineering fame upon which he has built his career.
Carlton has been a significant influence in Bromley’s life, extolling the virtues of mountaineering and his own major accomplishment. When the old man dies, the mountaineer, whose claim to fame is Carton’s Rock in the Alps, requests that William and Stanley deliver his body to the Rock for burial.
For William, the past mixes with the present in a hallucinogenic fugue, thrust into confusion by the turn of events, suffering recurrent memories of the failed foray to plant the transmitter, losing most of his men in the short, deadly battle.
Surprisingly, Stanley agrees to deliver the remains to the requested site, hoping to impress his fiancé. Bromley. in search of more personal redemption, agrees as well, yearning to recover an identity besmirched by self-doubt and the fallen bodies of his comrades-in-arms: “In the mountains you learned who you were, for better and for worse.”
After much contention with one of Bromley’s former climbing mates, the two friends set out to face the past and claim the future, fully aware of the dangers that await, pulling Carton’s weighty coffin in their wake.
What remains is the image of the two men dragging their incredible burden to its final resting place, the emotional terrain of the novel as strewn with obstacles as the landscape the men traverse, the icy wind howling a lament for the lost souls and fallen heroes of the war, storms obliterating the treacherous landscape, blinding the climbers pitted against the implacable grandeur of the Alps.
Watkin’s prose is graphic, the recreation of their endeavor chillingly atmospheric, filled with authentic historical detail and the hollow desperation of man against nature, Bromley’s courageous journey to reclaim his broken spirit.