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Esquire
Wednesday, January 11th, 2006


 

The Ice Soldier: A Novel

by Paul Watkins

Cold and Bored at 17,000 Feet

A review by Anna Godbersen

It's a good thing that William Bromley, the narrator of Paul Watkins's novel The Ice Soldier, has a grand obsession, otherwise his life would be all tweedy tea-times and crumbling books and other not very dramatic, Anglo activities. But a grand obsession he has (or had), and its name is mountaineering. As the novel opens, he has given up climbing ventures (which he once sold pints of blood to afford), for a quiet life teaching at a London prep school, feeling alienated from his father, and drinking wine at the club with "the society of former mountaineers," i.e. his old friend Stanley. A tragic mission to the Alps during World War II, when Bromley was transformed from an adventurer to the ice soldier of the title, still looms large; "for me," he says, "the past was like a maze from which I had yet to escape." But Stanley's uncle, a flamboyant former climbing hero who was a wartime advisor to the elite mountaineering crew, returns to Bromley's life with a macabre flourish, forcing him to face the past, and the Alps, again.

Though The Ice Soldier is a book almost too vaguely depressive to be readable, it is not without its charms. Watkins writes some lovely sentences, and throws in an inheritance twist and a love plot to lighten the heavy burden the past lays on the novel's present action. He also renders a sharp, clear picture of the dangerous beauty of the climber's world, on the cold fringes of survival. But the human drama feels tiresome, even with the gorgeous backdrop; The Ice Soldier ultimately feels like a clumsy production that blew its budget on special effects.


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