So frequently compared to Hemingway, Watkins (The Fellowship of Ghosts, 2004, etc.) delivers a ninth novel that’s willfully old-fashioned and, yes, Hemingwayesque.
WWII was excitement enough for William Bromley, who’s now content to teach history at a London boarding school and savor everyday sensations that people who haven’t experienced the horrors of war take for granted. Bromley and a bunch of his mates, accomplished mountaineers all, were pressed into service to install a radio antenna high in the Italian Alps that would help keep Allied planes from crashing into the mountains. Predictably, things went badly, and Bromley’s sworn off climbing for tweedy academia. Watkins takes his time (almost half the novel) filling in the tragic backstory, exploring Bromley’s relationship with best friend and fellow ex-climber Stanley Carton, a mildly ne’er-do-well chap. It is time well spent. When events finally precipitate Bromley and Carton’s return to the Alps, we know these two well enough that we don’t want them plunging through a crevasse or freezing to death on what is, in many respects, a fool’s errand—and one with a wicked but perfectly logical twist. As usual, Watkins writes beautifully: “On the precipice not only of the world but of your own existence, you look back with a mixture of pity and contempt at those who fuss away their time on the wheel of the working day.” He displays knowledge of half-century-old climbing equipment and techniques, and his precisely observed details are sharp. One can feel the scratch of the wool and the sting of the ice, taste the bean soup climbers eat and smell the smoke of the fire over which it was warmed.
Plants the flag for good, manly storytelling.