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In Trafalgar Square, the crowd hears the measured sound of the horses’ hooves and then, at last, sees their black forms surfacing through the mist.  And now men weep openly, unashamed, while the anguished cries of women pierce the air as the uncontrollable glut of grief begins to spread out, from the heaving capital to its suburbs, toward the villages, the towns, and the other cities, on to the country and the coast.

But nowhere is it felt more than at the heart of England, in London, among those who line the streets to watch the cortege go by.  For they have come from near and far, from every corner of the kingdom, to witness the laying to rest of the man who belongs to all of them and none of them — the soldier without a name who has been lifted from the battlefield to be buried among kings: the Unknown Warrior.

(from The Winter of the World, page eight)

The Winter of the World is an ambitious World War I novel by Carol Ann Lee, who tells the story of Alex Dyer, a journalist who gets as close to the battles as possible and does all he can to get past the censors so that the people back home in England know the truth.  When the book opens in 1920, Alex is a broken man, wracked with guilt about the fact that he and the wife of his best friend, Ted, fell in love and carried on an affair while Ted fought on the front lines.  Much of the story is told from Alex’s point of view in dialogue, as he spills out his troubles to Lombardi, who is part of a gardening crew tasked with filling in the trenches and turning the battlefields of Flanders into proper cemeteries.

Lee begins The Winter of the World with the procession of the Unknown Warrior, an unknown British soldier whose body was taken from the battlefields of France and entombed in Westminster Abbey on November 11, 1920.  From there, Lee takes readers on a journey of the battlefields and the trenches as Alex tells his story to Lombardi.  The narrative moves back and forth in time during the war and shifts from Alex’s point of view to that of Clare, Ted’s wife, a nurse stationed in France.  This structure is a little confusing at times, but the date and place are given at the beginning of each section in an effort to ease the transitions.

I had mixed feelings about this book, mainly because the storyline involving Alex and Clare’s affair was pretty weak and at times felt forced.  Alex and Clare fall in love at first sight before she is to marry Ted, yet she goes through with the wedding, and the three go their separate ways as war breaks out.  Clare is a compelling character, a woman struggling to find a foothold after emerging from a troubled childhood.  I never felt certain of her feelings for either Ted or Alex, but her strength is revealed when we see her in action as a nurse and that more than makes up for the problems in her private life.

I enjoyed (though maybe that’s not the best choice of word given the subject matter of the novel) the scenes told from Clare’s point of view, how she manages to take care of the wounded soldiers in horrid conditions and how she tenderly reaches out to a young boy emasculated by shrapnel and a veteran whose facial disfigurement causes the woman he loves to break their engagement.  Lee’s inclusion of historical information, such as advancements in plastic surgery intended to help veterans reclaim their lives after the war, was much more interesting than the love triangle.  The scenes in which Alex visits the trenches and the battlefields really underscore the gruesome aspects of war and give readers an understanding of the horrid conditions the soldiers endured, the consequences of new weaponry, the huge number of dead soldiers buried in the battlefields, and the destruction of the landscape during the war.

Lee’s writing is beautiful, making it easy to keep reading even when I found the romantic exploits of the characters distracting.  However, I kept wondering where the story was leading, until Lee uses a coincidental meeting to further the plot along.  I can’t say anything because I don’t want to give away the ending, but once the point of the novel became obvious, it felt like the story dragged when I just wanted to find out how the characters would react and fare in the end.

I wasn’t too keen on the transitions back and forth in time, and I would have liked the story more if it had been told in a linear fashion as the events occurred, not with Alex simply recounting events in a conversation.  However, I thought it was a worthwhile read overall and would recommend it to fans of war novels.  The Winter of the World is well-written and shines with its descriptions of the trenches and the physical and emotional impact of war, and Lee’s descriptions of plastic surgery and the mystery of the Unknown Warrior make it worth giving a try.

Disclosure: I borrowed The Winter of the World from my local library. I am an IndieBound affiliate and an Amazon associate.

© 2011 Anna Horner of Diary of an Eccentric. All Rights Reserved. Please do not reproduce or republish content without permission.

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