A novel of love, war, and medicine set during the grim final two years of World War I.
Medical student Lucius Krzelewski, born in Vienna to a well-to-do Polish family, is pressed into service as a doctor in the desperate year of 1914. He reports to an improvised field hospital—actually a church—in Lemnowice, located in a remote section of the Carpathian Mountains in eastern Europe, and there is expected to do far more than his modest clinical experience has trained him for. Up till that point he had never operated, and one of the two cures he had effected involved a patient with impacted earwax, but now he faces soldiers dying of typhus and needing amputations. In part assisting him, but largely teaching him, is Margarete, a nurse from the Sisters of St. Catherine. The medical tasks she performs are both complex and wearying, but gradually she tutors Lucius, and he gains more confidence in the difficult operations he must perform in appalling conditions. Mason then turns the narrative in a direction we’ve come to expect, for love and war are intimately connected: Lucius and Margarete become lovers, and a halcyon period ensues in which their romantic liaison briefly disengages them from some of the traumas of war. But one day Margarete disappears, and in following after her, Lucius gets entangled with the moving front of the war. He eventually makes his way back home, has a brief and unsatisfactory marriage, and then tries to find his long-lost love. Along the way he must deal with a major mystery—whether she in fact had been a nun at all.
Mason’s contribution to war literature involves almost no depiction of fighting but rather its aftermath, the tragically scarred soldiers, and the almost equally traumatized caregivers who sacrifice their health in providing medical help to the wounded.