World War I is one of my favorite periods for historical fiction. There are so many different points of view for an author to tell a story, and it’s rare that you’ll read the same story twice.
Carol Ann Lee begins The Winter of the World two years after Armistice Day, at the burial of the Unknown Warrior. After this extremely moving scene (which she says she drew from actual footage), we’re taken back to Ypres, where journalist Alex Dyer is writing about the conversion of the battlegrounds of Europe into proper cemeteries. He accompanies a man named Lombardi, who has a gift for drawing out secrets. Over the course of an evening, Alex relates his war experience, his frustration over not being able to fight and not being able to report the truth, and his guilt over the affair he had with his best friend Ted’s wife, Clare. With Lombardi’s help, Alex finds a way to redemption and, possibly, back to love.
There were two things I really loved about this novel. The first was seeing the war from Alex’s point of view. Any history class you take on World War I will touch on censorship and propaganda, and it was great to get a human spin on what was a very difficult situation. There was a particularly powerful scene where the journalists argued over one writer’s story that was spun to make the Germans look like godless monsters and, therefore, inspire fear and hatred at home; it really brought forward the ethical issues that journalists confronted with each story they sent for print.
The second was Ms. Lee’s emotional depiction of the selection, ceremony, and burial of the Unknown Warrior. It transported me right back to the event, and I could visualize very clearly the line of people waiting at Westminster Abbey all night to pay their respects to the man who could have been their son, husband, brother, or friend.
The affair between Clare and Alex is the other major plot of the novel, and the relationship is passionate and volatile, as it should be when two people feel an instant connection but, in order to satisfy that connection, they have to betray someone they both love. It’s as much a part of their war story as their respective experiences in the field and continues to haunt them after they’ve returned home. Ms. Lee leaves their end very slightly ambiguous, but I think it’s pretty clear what they decide to do.
The Winter of the World is a beautifully written World War I story that belongs on the shelf next to your Charles Todd, Jacqueline Winspear, and Anne Perry novels. I highly recommend it.