The Autumn of the Ace begins in 1945, as the second world war ends, but both Louis de Bernières and his protagonist Daniel Pitt appear reluctant to leave warfare behind. Pitt is a flying ace, but so nervous about returning to civilian life that he argues against handing back his service weapon. Eventually he capitulates. During the war, he lost two toes after being tortured by the Gestapo but he nonetheless appears to prefer physical peril to the prosaic dysfunctionality of his family life. His mother and one of his daughters are dead, his marriage has disintegrated and he has fathered two children by his wife’s bohemian sister. His son Bertie (by his wife) refuses to speak to him, and this conflict forms one of the central dramas of the book.
Lists explaining how all the characters are related are included at the beginning, but these seem deliberately to echo the mind-bending experience of looking at the family tree of the Bloomsbury group. It is somehow easier to navigate the different connections by just plunging into the story.
De Bernières has written two previous novels with the same cast of characters: The Dust that Falls from Dreams (2016) and So Much Life Left Over (2018). This structure is loosely based on John Galsworthy’s The Forsyte Saga, but I also felt at times that de Bernières was reaching for some of the emotional engagement of Elizabeth Jane Howard’s Cazalet Chronicles and sadly falling short.
There is the odd flash of horror. Pitt discovers a loved one’s body, the flesh of which has been eaten away by rats and maggots. All he can do is run his fingers ‘round the empty eye sockets’. The dead man is also an ex-soldier; he has committed suicide and there is a comment here on the ignominy with which those who have fought for their country are treated once they return from the battlefield.
Women do not fare well in this novel.There is much mention of their ‘heavy sagging breasts’ as they age, and the menopausal fury of at least one is unsympathetically rendered. Class also gets rough treatment: Daniel Pitt set up a motorcycle business between the wars with a cheerful cockney called Oily Wragge who baldly states: ‘The Captain and me were good mates, even though he was a toff and I was just a mister.’
Difficult themes — suicide, illegitimacy, colonial rule — are broached, not always successfully. But it is at least a tale told with some brio.