How to thaw a frozen soul

It takes an Alpine trek to undo the trauma experienced by a soldier in this post-World War II novel.

William Bromley is a protagonist largely defined by the things he will not do.

He has little or no contact with women. He no longer climbs mountains. He never thinks about the future. And he tries very hard not to recall much of anything about World War II.

This may not sound like a promising starting point for a story, but in The Ice Soldier, his ninth novel, Paul Watkins works this device rather neatly.

The setting is London, 1950. The tale begins with William Bromley, a young World War II veteran, lying on his back in a city street. "Is he dead?" asks an old woman as she leans over him.

Technically, no. But in any other sense, yes.

Bromley saw three of his best buddies die in the war. He emerged from the military with a medal for heroism - and a psyche so scarred that he's coping by living as little as possible.

He teaches at a private school, and spends his free time either visiting his widowed father or drinking with his one surviving friend. That is, until he returns to the mountains.

Watkins's earlier novels and memoirs have gained him a reputation as a Hemingwayesque writer of clean, elegant prose and also a master of atmospherics. In "The Ice Soldier" he again proves himself on both counts.

Like some of Watkins's other work (which includes tales set in Europe, New England, and Africa), this is a book that seems poised in an odd limbo. It balances somewhere between a story that's a surprisingly lovely read for an action tale and a novel that strives to be something more.

Despite praise for his talent (and a Booker nomination for his first novel), Watkins has yet to produce a work that will truly cement his reputation. "The Ice Soldier" is not that book. But it is a novel with certain well-defined pleasures to offer its readers, and it comes from a writer well worth noting.

Throughout the first half of the story, Bromley's daily routine is austere at best (with regular flashbacks to a more active past.) But even the narrator's sparse pleasures come to life in pleasing and lucid detail.

A man who is constantly surprised to find himself still alive, Bromley is awed by the little things in life: "the blue flame balanced in the old spoon in which I melted black polish for shining my boots on Sunday afternoons, or the smell of toasted granary bread, or the sound of a distant train clattering along the tracks in the middle of the night."

The story inches along for a time, following Bromley as he marks student papers with a Parker 51 pen from which flows blood-red ink or as he rides the train to his father's house in the Cotswolds, sipping tea and spreading marmalade on toast as the Berkshire countryside rattles past.

We learn that Bromley was once an avid mountaineer. When war broke out, however, he became an "ice soldier" - an operative trained to use his outdoor skills for military ends. When offered a dangerous mission, he recruited his best friends - and watched most of them die pointlessly. Guilt-ridden and anguished, he's sure he'll never climb again.

However, fate intervenes in the shape of Henry Carton, a quirky antihero of the mountaineering world who was once Bromley's mentor and who happens to be the uncle of Stanley, Bromley's last remaining friend.

Carton dies and leaves behind the odd request that Bromley and Stanley place his coffin atop a dangerous Italian peak. Thrust back into action, the two men find they must engage with life again.

As the novel moves into this adventurous phase (knowledgeably narrated - Watkins is a climber himself and knows whereof he writes), the plot begins to strain under its own weight, in part because Carton's request is such a flimsy pretext for galvanizing the two men into embarking on so dangerous a journey.

But even here, there are pleasures to be garnered from Watkins's prose. Throughout the Alpine adventure, he takes the time to describe the smoke hitting the mens' faces as they cook on their campfire and the flakes of oatmeal sweeping from their metal plates into the mountain stream as they wash the breakfast dishes.

What Watkins offers readers is a fully realized narrative world, one in which even some of the least characters come to life for a moment, as does Mrs. Reave, a tea shop proprietress with a walk-on role. She offers only a few tart words, but Watkins bothers to tell us that, "Her face was pinched, with a thin slit of a mouth lipsticked bloody red. She kept her hair tied in a bun so severe that it pulled her face into the likeness of someone walking into a hurricane wind."

Later, in the Italian Alps, a shop keeper utters his few lines while dangling a partially knitted baby stocking between his fingers - an odd but compelling detail.

Unfortunately, "The Ice Soldier" does not live up to its promise. The initial portrait of a man frozen in grief seems lost in the action that follows and eventually the characters come to feel cartoonish. The few women in the story seem cut from cardboard. (Although you have to admire the confidence and humor of a novelist who names a heroine "Helen Paradise.")

But Watkins's skill as a writer is indisputable, and as an adventure tale "The Ice Soldier" offers unexpected pleasures. It's hard, however, considering the talent on display here, not to hope for more.

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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