THE WINTER SOLDIER, by Daniel Mason. Little, Brown and Co.; 323 pp., $28.
Historical fiction is a guilty pleasure for many readers. There’s so much ham-handed stuff out there that when an artfully written historical novel comes along — Julie Orringer’s “The Invisible Bridge,” Elizabeth Gilbert’s “The Signature of All Things” and Jennifer Egan’s “Manhattan Beach” are recent examples — it comes as a welcome relief. You can let down your guard and simply enjoy this unfashionable genre in the hands of a master writer.
That's how I felt from the very first pages of Daniel Mason’s new novel, “The Winter Soldier,” a captivating story set in the Austro-Hungarian Empire during World War I. The novel opens in the Central European region of Galicia in 1915, as a 22-year-old medical student from Vienna disembarks from a train and sets out on horseback for the remote regimental hospital to which he has been dispatched. Lucius Krzelewski, whose privileged Polish family claims descent from "Japheth, son of Noah" on one side and Jan Sobieski, King of Poland on the other, is an inexperienced medical student fascinated by neurology. (In the words of his professors, he possesses “an unusual aptitude for the perception of things that lie beneath the skin.”)
Nothing has prepared Lucius for what he finds when he arrives in Lemnowice. The “hospital” is a rat-and-louse-infested wooden church presided over by a mysterious nursing sister named Margarete. The other nurses have died of typhus; the supervising physicians have long since fled. Their chief duty is to perform amputations on soldiers fresh from the battlefield. Lucius, of course, has never operated, let alone amputated a limb. In a grimly comical sequence, Lucius performs his first amputation with the mock respectful guidance of Margarete: “Perhaps that is how it is done in Vienna, but in Galicia, you’ll need to cut a larger flap . . . Who taught you, Doctor? They should really be honored with a decoration.”
These early passages describing the hospital, its various characters and the education that Lucius receives there — both medical and romantic — are among the many marvels of “The Winter Soldier.” The student with an interest in neurological cases encounters a strange one in the form of a mute, dead-eyed patient they dub “the winter soldier”: “Nervous shock . . . A new disease, born of the war,” Lucius is told by two doctors who eventually turn up at the hospital. “No sense to its symptoms, which seemed to simulate damage to the nerves . . . No agreement as to cause.” Lucius makes a special mission of curing this soldier.
Eventually the war will encroach on Lemnowice, disrupting the life of this little unimportant field hospital and dispersing its residents. Lucius will find himself back in Vienna — now a city that is “dark and hungry and tired of war” — and still haunted by the winter soldier, by Margarete, by all he has seen during his service.
Mason, himself a physician and the author of two previous novels, “The Piano Tuner” and “A Far Country,” has a light touch with such dark subjects. Light, too, is the deployment of his thorough historical research. The archaic military terminology — shako, puttee, pickelhaube — establishes a rich sense of this bygone war but never distracts from the characters or story. “The Winter Soldier” is a novel that happens to draw on history, but it does what all the best novels do: Creates a world in which readers pleasurably lose themselves.