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THE ICE SOLDIER Paul Watkins 2005 1st UK ed Hardcover DJ Fine
By Watkins, Paul
Price: $9.95


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London, Faber & Faber, 2005, 1st UK edition. Hardcover with dust jacket. Fine. 

Reminiscent of the adventure novels of Alistair McLean and even Joseph Conrad, Paul Watkins' the Ice Soldier is a rousing, stirring adventure tale, a story of heroism, comradeship and love that takes place high atop the windswept pinnacles of the Italian Alps. The novel opens in 1950 when ex-mountaineer William Bromley is trying to put the ghosts of the War behind him whilst quietly forging a career as a schoolteacher in central London.

For William, mountain climbing has been a lifelong fascination, he and his friends once indelibly drawn to 'the stony rafters of the world,' not just worlds of rock, snow and ice, but worlds of bleak and unforgettable beauty.' But when a war time expedition to place a radio beacon on Carton's Rock, the highest point on the Alps, goes horribly wrong, and results in the death of three of his mountaineering comrades, William's climbing days become a thing of the past.

All that is left are weekly drinking binges at the Montague Hotel where William and his best friend Stanley Carton, join the Society of Former Mountaineers, and reminisce about bygone days. Both realize they have become, each in their own way, outcasts from the mountaineering community.

William travels home to Gloucestershire, hoping his father's kindly advice will help him temper some of the regret and guilt. Yet he can't help but stand on the verge of oblivion, clinging to symbols of those old days when he had taken life for granted, certain that he would climb again and again. When Stanley's uncle, the feisty Henry Carton commits suicide, he makes a posthumous request, instructing his lawyer to tell William and Stanley they must climb, and that his body be returned to that fateful alpine peak named in his honor.

For Henry Carton, even in death, the Alps remains the ultimate proving ground, convinced that only by climbing the mountains again could William and Stanley find any hope of redemption and freedom from guilt. It is only through placing his body high atop Carton's rock - the view from the top one of the greatest wonders of the world - that these two men will be able to free themselves from the constrictions of the past, up here you are 'all that one could be,' and where all that one was becomes clear.

William and Stanley's adventures as they retrace their steps up through the rocky peaks, the desolate valleys and the snow-covered glaciers, are extraordinary and full of tension, far removed from the structures of their comfortable life of London. Both are upstanding and essentially 'British' chaps who value loyalty and integrity, fanatically hold onto their youthful dreams, and both are of the belief that up atop the mountains no climber can ever afford to be sheltered by his wealth, his social connections, or by his clever turns of phrase. On the mountains, 'you learned who you were, for better or for worse.'

Watkin's prose is vital, precise and accessible; he taps into the mechanics of mountain climbing, yet the novel never gets bogged down in excessive detail. There's clarity of thought that comes from climbing, from being in a world not clogged by a grid-work of roads and playing fields; where life is infinitely simplified. Aside from an ice axe, 'a few carabiner loops and a length of rope,' there is nothing to rely on but yourself and those with whom you climb.

The author also excels in describing the beautiful desolation and the unique grandeur of the mountains: The freezing night, the dripping icicles, true snow glittering like broken glass, the steel-blue light thrown down by the moon. On the glacier's ice there is 'only the angry sun or the blind eye of the moon,' enough to make a person feel as though they were marooned on an empty planet, alone.

The war and the changes it has bought to William's life remove any plan for the future, even the future itself, now the past and the future are endlessly spinning around like the streams of time itself. Only by returning to this sacred ground can William - and Stanley - come to terms with their newfound fears of climbing and perhaps take back their lives. 


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