From the author of The Three Passions of Countess Natalya (1985), an affecting account of how a young British aviator from the wrong side of the social tracks goes about surviving the last year of WW I. Not yet 21, Marten Corby has served for two years as an infantryman on the Western Front and survived seven months of aerial combat. Sustained by alcohol, memories of an unattainable girl back home, and an eerie ability to detach himself from his horrific environment, the airman keeps his comrades in arms at a distance. The only son of a working-class family from inner-city London, Marten is serving with Peter West, a golden boy who befriended him at the public school to which he won a scholarship. Even so, Marten (once wounded and decorated for valor in the trenches) refuses to fully renew the acquaintance for unacknowledged fear of further loss. Moreover, while among his squadron's best fliers, he does little more than duty requires, shooting at German aircraft only when fellow pilots are at risk. Invalided back to England after a crash landing, Marten learns that Mary, the lass he loved from afar, has betrayed Peter, who expected to marry her. Distraught, Marten finds solace in the arms of Jean Stacey, a worldly woman four years his senior. Marten returns to France in appreciably better spirits; the once alienated airman is also readier to assume responsibility. When Peter is killed at the height of a last-gasp German offensive, he's prepared to bear even heavier burdens. At the close, a renewed Marten is shepherding a flock of greenhorns back to base from a turning-point battle, confident he will live to return home and to marry Jean. A well-handled coming-of-age tale that offers a rather less glamorous view of the Great War's pioneering fighter pilots than legend allows.
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