The book group in which I participate chose this book for our end-of-summer read. I hadn’t heard of it, but I was engrossed from the very start. Set during World War 1 in that amorphous national boundary land in Eastern Europe – Poland, Ukraine, Slovakia, Hungary, Austria – it follows the journey of a dedicated medical student who finds himself working as a doctor in an improvised hospital in a small town church in the Carpathian mountains.
This is not an easy book to read. The author, who is a physician, spares no details about the horrific injuries and treatments of the time. Perhaps the most horrifying is the authoritarian and brutal methods of conscription in the various armies. I say “various” because no one really knows with whom they are fighting or who the enemy is. This area of the world is so complicated, and the somewhat new national boundaries at the beginning of the 20th century do nothing to block or hold the old ties of tribe and language. In fact, language is an interesting feature of this book, as the doctor (fluent in Polish and German) has to negotiate soldiers speaking Hungarian, Czech, and the local Ruthvenian.
The vocabulary of this novel is large and wide-ranging. I went to the dictionary often to check on a medical term or a word usage with which I was unfamiliar. For me, this added to the depth and richness of the book.
The story follows the doctor Lucius as he learns and grows into adulthood, with a fascinating love story woven in. I love the layers of individual meaning and discovery that frame the plot and lead to its somewhat surprising but totally sensible ending. This is a great read!