This utterly brilliant - apparently simple, almost spare - short novel has the most breathtaking ending. The best, in fact, I've ever read.
Duff Cooper's novel narrates the somewhat sorry life and career of Willie Maryngton, a soldier who misses out on his ambition of seeing military action. Too young for the first world war, he receives his commission in 1918 - just in time to hear that the armistice has been signed. When the second world war brakes out his age (early 40s) keeps him at home to train younger officers. He longs to fight, to represent his country, and he can't understand why most men long for peacetime.
Just as Willie is kept at arm's length from the war so the reader is only sparingly reminded of it through the book. What we see is a somewhat innocent rather awkward man - one who is naive about other human beings - who tries to do his best. In India he falls in love with a colonel's daughter, quickly assumes marriage is what should happen next, and is horribly let down. Back in England he falls for a childhood playmate - a frustrating relationship that is never realised, yet Willie's love and devotion to her is lifelong and wonderful in its way. And in the end his love is returned - that it comes too late does nothing to dampen the emotion.
And, finally Willie does get to serve his country. In fact, his role proves key in a twist that comes from one of the most phenomenal war stories. When the book was first published in 1950 the reviews were full of questions as to whether it disclosed a ruse employed by British Military Intelligence during a vital stage of the war. Whilst at the time both Duff Cooper and the War Office apparently denied the veracity of the final episode of his novel it is remarkably close to something that really happened.