Carol Ann Lee: The Winter of the World (2007) Literature and War Readalong April

Journalist Alex Dyer made his name covering the bloody horrors of the European trenches. Yet even after the Great War is over, he cannot shake the guilt he feels for not serving on the front lines like his dearest childhood friend, Ted Eden. Worse still, Alex cannot put to rest the emotions that gnaw at him from the inside: his feelings for Clare, Ted’s wife—a woman they both have loved more than life itself. 

Carol Ann Lee’s The Winter of the World is the last novel on WWI in this read along. For the next one we will be moving on to WWII.

This wasn’t the easiest review to write as I am in two minds about this novel. There are parts in it that are so haunting and powerful but then again there were others were I was just rolling my eyes thinking “get on with it”.  Still it would be unfair to write a totally negative review because the good parts are among the best on WWI I’ve ever read.

Alex and Ted are childhood friends. They are close and attached to each other until the day Ted introduces Alex to his soon-to-be wife Clare. Very unfortunately this is a love at first sight moment for Alex and Clare. They try to fight it but, as we will see soon enough, the more the story advances, the less likely it is that they will succeed.

The marriage takes place just when the war breaks out. Ted will enlist, Alex will participate as a war correspondent and Clare will be one of the nurses in France.

The novel moves back and forth between Alex’s and Clare’s point of view. Alex sees a lot of atrocities and the descriptions are very graphic and extremely impressive without falling into the trap of being too clichéd. But since Alex isn’t fighting, it stays an outsider’s perspective. Clare’s point of view was captivating for totally different reasons. As a war nurse she has to deal with indescribable wounds and suffering. The abundance of facial wounds seems to be a trait of WWI and these parts reminded me of one of the best WWI movies I have ever seen, La chambre des officiers aka The officer’s chamber based on the eponymous novel by Marc Dugain. We seem to get an insider’s view of this truly harrowing aspect of the “Great war”. I can hardly imagine what it must have been like to have been the victim of this kind of facial mutilation and to be rejected by those you loved and who once loved you. The reactions of the relatives and fiancées were often brutal. Through Clare’s eyes we also get an equally close look at what mustard gas did to those who became its victims and how they suffocated or drowned slowly.

The only men more popular than I was were the ones in wheelchairs, or those with empty sleeves pinned against their chest. Everyone wanted to talk to them, to do something for them. Children presented them with flags and in the railway stations they got free tea or coffee. It was different for the ones whose faces had been destroyed. People averted their eyes quickly, the blood flooding their skin. No one wanted to make eye contact with a disfigured soldier; they were modern-day lepers.

While the war moves on – not stopping at Christmas, as was expected – the love affair develops as well. Clare and Alex meet secretly but are finally driven apart by conflicting emotions and wishes. Alex feels he needs to tell Ted everything, while Clare wants to protect him and keep the affair secret.

Through Alex’ voice we hear what it must have been like to cover this war as a correspondent. The journalists were not allowed to tell the truth. The numbers of casualties were not mentioned nor were the biggest defeats spoken of. While Clare’s parts rather focus on individuals, Alex’ parts illustrate the enormity of the losses. He evokes the incredible amount of wounded, disfigured and killed soldiers. At moments I had the feeling of seeing all these dead men standing in one huge row before my inner eye. When we visit those cemeteries we get a feeling for those massive losses.

He imagined a thin line linking the cemeteries along the old Western Front, from the smallest graveyards hidden away within woods to those huge, silent cities on the plains where the most ferocious battles had been fought. Some bore the names given to them by the soldiers themselves – Owl Trench, Caterpillar Valley, Crucifix Corner – while others were named after the battalion who had buried their own men there. He imagined how tha line would look from the air; so thick in parts that it resembled a child’s scribble, for they were everywhere these Gardens of Stone.

The novel slowly moves towards the culminating point which is the burial of the “unknown warrior”. The name is chose deliberately as “warrior” sounded more inclusive than “soldier”. The grave which is really located in Westminster Abbey was meant to commemorate all the dead fighters of this war, not only the infantry men. The burial is one of the best and most powerful parts in this novel.

Despite all these impressive elements, I had my problems, as I said. The biggest part of the story is told by Alex. He tells Lombardi, a guy he meets in Flanders after the war, why he is so tormented, why he cannot get over the war. I didn’t get this narrative device at all.  I would have preferred a more straightforward story, not this artificial telling of what happened to someone who has nothing to do with it. This was a common technique in 19th century novels but I think it doesn’t add anything to a modern novel at all. The next biggest negative aspect was the coincidence. I found it highly unlikely that Alex would meet Ted at the end. The third thing that I didn’t think well-done is the love-triangle. I think it was unnecessary that Alex and Clare had an affair. The descriptions of Alex’ feelings worked very well for me but not those of Clare. And the guilt-theme was just an element too much. Last but not least I missed Ted’s point of view.

I have a lot of questions at the end of this novel and would be curious to know what others thought.

Was this really the tone of a WWI novel? Especially the love-affair seemed very WWII to me but maybe that impression stems from the similarity to Pearl Harbor.

What about the facial wounds, does anyone know whether this was a consequence of the trenches? In The officer’s chambers, the young officer loses half of his face on the battle field, but I have really never heard so much about this type of injury from any other war.

Why do you think Carol Ann Lee left out Ted’s point of view? I think she might have risked to fall into the trap of cliché but I am not sure that’s why she chose to leave it out.

I’m really curious to read your thoughts.

Here are other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Danielle (A Work in Progress)


The Winter of the World was the fourth book in the Literature and War Readalong. The next one will be Shusaku Endo’s The Sea and Poison aka Umi to dokuyaku. Discussion starts on Friday May 27, 2011 .

21 thoughts on “Carol Ann Lee: The Winter of the World (2007) Literature and War Readalong April

  1. I haven’t read your post yet, but I will very soon. I’m still reading the book, and it might take me another day or two to finish. But I will come and join the discussion when I’m done. 🙂

  2. interestin. the first part of your review really sound impressive, but I can totally understand the part that is not too interesting to read. If I read this, I would probably feel bored with the love trianggle

    • I just think combining love and war like this is very chlichéd. It didn’t add anything to the story. Everything that happens would have been awful and traumatizing without the guilt bit. Alex has a lot of problems because he didn’t fight and Ted didn’t. That would have been enough. But she did manage to convey a lot of other things very well.

  3. I enjoyed the book, but I also had some problems with it. I will comment on them later, but now I want to concentrate on what I saw as the most important theme: who is more evil – Clare or Alex?

    Clare: “I’m trying to work out which one of us is more evil: you, for betraying the man you regard as your brother or me, for committing adultery.”

    You can definitely argue for each and I have bounced back and forth. I think I have to go with Alex because although he is not a soldier, he should know the effect something like this (one’s wife having an affair) would have on a typical soldier. Only this is not a typical soldier, it’s his best friend! The worst nightmare for soldiers in war is getting a “Dear John” letter. Alex should have been able to foresee the consequences of a “Dear John, I’m in love with your best friend” scenario.

    • I didn’t really ask myself this question as I discarded the affair sort of. I think, if you want to speak of guilt, they are equally guilty. They are both in it and both know what it means for a soldier or anyone to be informed of what happened. I think she is more aware of the consequences.
      I’m looking forward to read your thoughts in more detail.

  4. Cop out! You can’t say they are equally evil. Choose.

    Sorry the following is mostly negative. I’ll list thepositives later.

    1. I liked the dual narratives, but would have liked to see Ted’s story as well. Not so much as part of a love triangle but to complete the nurse, war correspondent, and soldier triangle. However, since the nurse and reporter stories are less covered in literature, I can understand.
    Lee does cover them well. I learned some things.

    2. I could have found Clare one of my favorite female characters, but her weakness in love overwhelms her strength as a nurse. I loved the scene with the girl who could not take her fiance’s new face.

    3. Two enormous “it’s a small world” coincidences: Clare with her dying step-father, Alex with the dying Ted. (BTW did Lee mean to be ironic by having Ted scold Claire for not forgiving her father and yet he does not forgive Alex?)

    4. Alex is so stuffy about veracity in war reports while at the same time he is cheating with his best friend’s wife, come on!

    5. Alex: “A place always belongs to its discoverer… regardless of how many other travelers might wander through it.” (referring to how Clare is his) – great line, but surely Ted had been there first!

    6. The “jumps the shark” moment comes when Ted tells Alex he had a thing for Alex’s ex Catherine, but could not do that to his friend because “your friendship meant far more to me”. Gag! Too much, Lee. The book goes downhill from this moment.

    7. The decision of Alex to tell Ted was totally ridiculous! The only thing that would have made sense would have been if Lee implied he wanted his friend to commit suicide, but I did not get that impression.

    8. Ted gets a great death scene, but never asks the obvious question of Alex: “How could you do this?!”

    9. As though Alex is not going to Hell already for betraying his best friend, he decides to betray the entire British nation by treacherously sabotaging the Unknown Warrior project. Absolutely despicable. No woman is worth that!

    10. I liked the Crucified Canadian subplot, but the Alex-Thorpe confrontation at the end was forced to have a villain to take attention away from Alex’s actions.

    11. The ending does not ring true. I do not see Alex and Clare getting back together and they should not. Is Lee saying that after all they did, they deserve to live happily ever after? They deserve to be miserable.

  5. I would say that we really agree on most parts.
    1.I didn’t mid the dual narratives, I didn’t like it that Ted told the story to someone outside and thought as well that Ted’s story was missing but I really think this way it was less clichéd as she did bring things into the narrative that I didn’t know in all this detail either.
    2. Clare is a great nurse but a shitty wife/lover.
    3. I had totally forgotten about the first cocincidence with the step-father but found it almost more realistic than the second and it served a purpose. I found Clare’s reaction thought-provoking and really don’t know how I would have reacted.
    4. True but that didn’t bother me, I think that’s pretty human.
    5. Lol
    6.Really bad scene. Made me cringe.
    7. I disagree. That was the only decent thing to do, the only way to save or lose the friendship but it had no future. The moment however was very badly chose. That could have waited until after the war.
    8. He probably didn’t care anymore.
    9. It’s quite an idea, and reading her afterword Lee was really conscious that some people would disapprove. I didn’t think it realistic.
    10. Thorpe is another element too much. I sometimes thougt she didn’t trust her story enough. We read so many incredible scenes…. It was enough.
    11. The ending totally puzzled me. At one moment I was wondering if she was in an asylum. Gone mad… I don’t think they deserve to be miserable. They didn’t do what they did lightly. Passion is quite powerful, it’s not that easy to fight it and they were very young. Cut them some slack.

    I’m curious to read your “positives”.

  6. I’m glad to see we agree on most of my points. And a little surprised. Let me briefly amplify on a few.

    7. Do you think he wanted Ted to die? If not, then having him confess before the Battle of Passchendaele, which he knew Ted would be involved in, is an act of either incredible naivete or incredible cruelty. I see it as a plot device to get Ted killed and buried as the Unknown Warrior. It does not work for me.

    8. Ted’s first reaction would have been: “Can I strangle him?” Answer – no. Second, scold. Third, “Why?” I just can not see him not asking why.

    11. It would have been much more satisfying if she had chosen Thomas Harman.

    1. She writes well and has some mmarvelous lines. Ex. “His smile was fragile, as though a breath of wind could shatter it.”

    2. the visit to the water-logged trenches pp. 59-63

    3. the German officer’s analysis of the war p.72 “Man can endure a great deal – and in the end, it is this ability to withstand so much that proves our undoing.”

    4. on GHQ – “A trench, good Lord, what’s that? Oh, yes, they’ve heard of them and some have even seen them in a way that our kind of people like to go slumming on occasionto remind us of our superiority” to the unwashed masses

    5. great descriptions of bombed out villages

    6. I had never heard of the British equivalent of the Unknown Soldier or the Crucified Canadian story so I learned something

    • The points were in my review. 🙂
      7. I think all he had on his mind was confession and knowing the battle might cost Ted’s life, he thought it could be the last chance.
      8. I don’t think that I would have asked that but tht’s only me.
      11. Also a bit cheesy, no? I wonder whether she wanted to express that their love/attraction was so great that there was never an escaping it and their being together in the end justified everything else.

      I agree on her writing. The descriptions are great and not clichéd, agree on all the other points as well. There is an Unknown Soldier’s grave every where (but Switzerland) as far as I know but I didn’t know about the one in Westminster Abbey. She did her research very well. I just think some of her choices for the story were unfortunate. She say somewhere that she wanted to write a story about love not war… Love could have been i it. Just imagine if Alex had secretely loved Clare and TE anyway as his best friend… That would have been enough for the whole novel. The afair spoilt it and the choice of Ted as the Unknown Soldier did as well.

  7. I had a very similar reaction to you with this book. There were things I liked very much about it–the historical aspect and war scenes, but other parts just didn’t quite work for me. I had a hard time believing Alex and Clare felt such a passion–a long living one. Somehow that just didn’t quite feel developed. Maybe I am just cynical, though, as love stories are not high on my list of favorites at the moment. I hadn’t thought of the narrative device–using Lombardi as his confessor of sorts–that did sort of fizzle out, didn’t it? I can see why she used it, but at the same time Lombardi only seemed to be the impetus of the story telling but after he finished he seemed to just disappear. I also there were lots of contradictory feelings among the characters as Kevin mentions, but I suppose that is sort of being human? I’m not sure why the drama with the reporters at the end was included (Alex and the one who wrote about the crucified soldier)–somehow it didn’t seem necessary other than to add a few dramatic moments. A lot of the story seemed somewhat contrived–but then not surprising since the author had an idea and built the story around that idea. Strangely that’s one of the things I liked most about the book–the fallen soldier and Alex finding redemption by getting his friend interred in Westminster Abbey. She’s a good writer, though, and I feel a little like I am just being nitpicky. I thought the war scenes were really good. And from what I have read the facial wounds were really awful in WWI. You might be interested to take a look at this site that I found when I was reading this book:

    • Thanks for the link Danielle.
      I don’t think you are being nitpicky, we had similar reactions to the book. i think it would have been good to do some serious editing. These little details like the narrative device, the journalist at the end, they all distracted and didn’t add anything. I was reminded of The Postmistress at times. Both authors did research and did that well, both authors constructed their novel around one single idea.
      I liked the idea to tell the story of the unknown soldier.
      I still have a feeling she is better at nonfiction books.
      What I liked is to see the different approaches to WWI. She added something to that narratve, completely different aspects from the three novels we already read.

  8. The best things about this book were the battlefield descriptions – only, alas! I am a squeamish wimp and found myself skipping a lot of them because I couldn’t bring myself to really engage. I guess I have read more war stories in French, where I don’t have to see the images so clearly if I don’t want to. I felt the love story was supposed to provide emotional balance in a way – something beautiful compared to the horror of the trenches, but it did become a bit saccharine. Although I should add to that that it was also a study in guilt. I also like the way the story tied up with the grave of the unknown soldier. Yes, it was a real curate’s egg – good in parts.

    • I was thinking of you while reading it as I remembered you wrote somewhere you can’t read books that are too graphic. It is indeed a graphic novel and I found it hard at times to read it. To be honest I even dreamt of one of the scenes. On the other hand I think we will never be able to know what it must have been like to be there and experience it. No wonder there were so many cases of PTSD.
      Maybe that is what the love story was meant to be, yes.
      I think “curate’s egg” sums it up.
      I’m not sure whether you will review it, I will check later and then link your review if you did so.

  9. Pingback: Review: The Winter of the World by Carol Ann Lee « Diary of an Eccentric

  10. Finally! My review is here:

    I thought the historical aspect of the novel was fascinating, from the plastic surgery to the descriptions of the battlefields and the trenches. I liked the mystery of the Unknown Warrior, and I knew she would have to go there with Alex’s guilt, but the whole coincidental meeting with Ted as he was dying was a bit much for me. And the whole romance felt weak and a bit forced. If she was so in love with Alex, why did she go on and marry Ted? There really wasn’t any need for an affair because the marriage didn’t have to happen.

    I also picked up on Clare’s weakness with regard to her romantic live as juxtaposed to her strength as a nurse during the war. She was the most captivating character for me, and I wish it had been more about her and less about Alex.

    • Great that you made it. I’ll pop over shortly to read your review. I think we all agreed on this book. The historical parts were really great but the love story and the use of coincidence didn’t work. Clare would have been such a great character.
      True about the marriage. I didn’t understand that either, she could just have stopped it at the right moment. On the other hand they would still have had a problem.

      • You’re right. Clare was a very troubled woman and I think she had to deal with her past before she could have any kind of normal relationship. Doesn’t excuse her actions, though. I really wish she would have been a more developed character because I found her very interesting.

        • I didn’t like that I had the feeling the author took her past as an excuse. It might have been an explanation but not an excuse. On my war movies blog I want to do a post only on nurses in war movies. I find these women so admirable. The way Clare treats her patients is wonderful.

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