Bleak Memory: A War Vet Looks for Peace to the Mountains


William Bromley’s first fainting spell follows a hefty bottle of Château Figeac, and it’s easy to blame the Bordeaux. The second, during a Cotswold constitutional, is tougher to explain away. It’s London in 1950, and Mr. Bromley—old Etonian, young history teacher, and ex-mountaineer—has begun to remember the war.

Paul Watkins’s characters tend to have especially scathing encounters with combat, and The Ice Soldier‘s narrator is no exception. In the six years since his return from a catastrophic WWII Alpine expedition, Bromley has fashioned a mostly functioning antidote to his memory by aiming low: climbing mountains stands for ambition, and his loftiest goal now is spotting the school secretary with a pair of Busch Rathenows. But resolute apathy turns out to be too thin a defense. As we meet him, he’s just been buffeted by the first of a series of flashbacks. Laced throughout the novel, they dredge up his past in jarring jump cuts.

Salvation, of course, can only come from a return to the mountains, a prospect that arises when Bromley’s old climbing guru—the mastermind of the ill-fated sortie—makes a posthumous request for his coffin to be hauled up those same Italian slopes. It’s a wittily apt climax for a novel whose project has been to pull a contemporary image of psychological detachment into the frame of a post-WWII period piece. Since the war, Bromley has clung to the trinkets of the outdoorsy public schooler—the Opinel knife, the Hardy fishing bag, the Parker 51 whose ink “looked to me more like fresh blood as it flowed from the little gold nib”—and these have both held the scent of mid-century Magdalen and evidenced what we’d now call a rut. His final trek winkingly literalizes the tired aphorisms of modern psychobabble: To confront his closeted skeletons, Bromley yokes himself to the coffin that contains them.