Mason's story of love and death gives voice to restless 22-year-old Lucius Krzelweski. In 1914, Lucius is about to serve in the village of Lemnowice in the Eastern part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Lucius is impatient to end his training, devoted to medicine with "a monastic severity." A product of eloquent, frivolous Vienna, Lucius and his friend Feuermann find time to continue with their studies in the state of forced conscription. Lucius does not appreciate the opportunity of war. He sees the efforts of mobilization as disruptive, and he fears he will be wasted on the front lines. Yet the celebrations are hard to ignore, as are the whispers that it is "Austria's war."
Brilliant and talented, Lucius is swept in the massive surge of events, struggling to keep his head above water. All around him, friends, family and nameless millions of others drown in war's turbulence. Far beyond Krakow, where the Austrian line is disintegrating and the Cossacks are "like shadows dancing deep in the woods," Lucius sees the horsemen of so many childhood dreams. On the Eastern Front, Lucius the garrison towns are lined with whorehouses. The clinics care for a steady flow of men receiving urethral dilation for gonorrheal strictures.
Mason's poetic writing style heightens the transcendence of Lucius's relationship with Margarete, Lemnowice's enigmatic nurse. The arc of Lucius from reluctant student doctor to lovesick protagonist parallels the evolution of great literary heroes. Mason gives Lucius and Margarete's relationship a universality that allows it to escape the horrors of the reality around them. Lucius's love for Margarete is a natural response to her altruism and authenticity. She is unintimidated by the horror and amputations, the greater infestations of louse, the first cases of typhus and the torn anatomy of the fallen soldiers.
A slow-building unease defines much of Lucius's war. His affair with Margarete seems dreamlike before her own complications take her away. Caught up in a battle with the Cossacks, Lucius barely survives the war. He remains haunted by the arrival of Jozsef Horvath, "the winter soldier." Horvath's presence provides a sense of recognition, a flickering of memory that gives identity to Lucius's post-war existence and stunted relationships. There's some kind of connection between Margarete and Horvath, something deeper, farther back and shared in childhood. Beyond his skilled sketches of men, soldiers, trains and mountains, Horvath's art becomes an aching symbol for Lucius's personal heartache.
From the field stations and snowstorms to the faces and shadows of "creatures lurking in the darkness of a crumpled coat," Mason writes a Zhivago-like saga that reflects Lucius's complex mix of fear and yearning, a desire echoed through Margarete's tender kisses and her brief caresses and whispers.
In his testament to the great romantic literary masterpieces (not just Pasternak's novel but also Rebecca West's Return of the Soldier and Vera Britain's Testament of Youth), Mason examines war's shell-shock, sadness and resolution. Lucius is Mason's voice as he begs us to assess the tangible, life-throttling cost of conflict. Lucius lacerates his way through love and heartbreak; the whereabouts of his beloved Margarete end up forcing him to confront the power of conviction and the high cost of integrity.