A soldier struggles to come to terms with the psychological impact of war in this historical novel.
Willis Hancocks, a debonair Canadian soldier, fights on the western front of the European theater of World War II. He is first encountered recuperating in an Army hospital, where he delights in charming the nurses. Here he meets Sam, a cocky yet warmhearted soldier and fellow casualty. Sam’s presence buoys Willis, and he is disappointed when the young man returns to combat. Asking whether he will be sent home, Willis learns that he will be kept around “for the entertainment.” He is posted to the Netherlands, where he celebrates the liberation of Eindhoven. He encounters Sam, and falls for a beautiful waitress called Frieda, who fills his dreams long after he’s kissed her goodbye. After a period of fighting, Willis and Sam enjoy a short leave in London. Willis meets Ellie Birch, an art student, and in a whirlwind romance, he proposes to her before heading for combat. Following the fall of the Nazis, Willis returns to Ellie, yet he’s withdrawn, depressed, and sensitive to sudden, loud noises or commotion. Willis is sent away to convalesce, but the difficulties of settling back into everyday life only intensify when Ellie gives birth. Will Willis find the strength to fulfill his role as husband and father? Will the dream of Frieda ever leave him? This sensitive, vital novel examines the psychological toll of war on the soldier and those closest to him. The result is a deeply personal and affecting narrative, punctuated by touching letters and snippets of italicized inner monologues. In the midst of battle, Willis writes: “In this place, there are days I can’t see past the end of my nose, and other days all I can see is my whole life ahead of me.” Ellie responds by letter: “I wish for happiness this year: an end to this war and our own suffering. I wish for you to come home.” Raine (Outcast: A Short Story, 2015, etc.) generates a powerfully genuine sense of yearning, which becomes tragic when Willis is unable to reciprocate this emotion when returning home. The novel lacks vivid combat descriptions, which would have helped inform the physical cause of Willis’ “combat neurosis,” now known as post-traumatic stress disorder. Furthermore, Sam’s character appears rather underdeveloped in comparison to the multifaceted Willis. Nevertheless, this is a well-written, emotionally intelligent book.
A military tale explores the strengths and frailties of the human mind in the aftermath of war.