The Autumn of the Ace by Louis de Bernieres is the final book in the wonderful trilogy that began with The Dust that Falls from Dreams and So Much Life Left Over. These books are exactly the kind of novels that I wish I could write. As the others were, this is a beautiful, poetic, melancholic novel that left me with a wistfulness and a strong sense of missing the generation that has passed, and left me sitting with them a little longer in my chair when I reached the end of the book.
It starts with Daniel at the end of the second world war, having survived his service flying spies in and out of France as part of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), the peace weighing heavily on him, as it had at the end of his days as a flying ace in the first world war. It’s here that we catch-up with the cast of characters as they deal with middle-age. Christabel, Daniel’s lover, who is in a relationship with Gaskell, her life partner, has long accepted that she must share her great love Christabel with Daniel. Their lives are up in Hexham in a rambling pile of a country estate that Gaskell has inherited, complete with a real-life lion that they have bought from Harrods. Meanwhile, Rosie, Daniel’s estranged wife and Christabel’s sister, is still struggling through life obsessed by her religion, which has resulted in pushing Daniel away. The third sister, Ottilie, is back from India with her husband Frederick, making the best of their new life on the south coast at Bosham, whilst the fourth sister Sophie is still madly in love with her husband Fairhead, who is looking for meaning as he continues to struggle with his faith. When Daniel’s brother Archie dies from alcoholism, Daniel sets off on a trek to bury his bones in the north-west frontier, where Archie had been happiest, and then journeys on to South Africa to visit the graves of his much elder two brothers who had died in the Boer War. On his return to England he sets off on one final adventure, motorcycling across Canada with his old friend Oily Wragge. The book flows on, taking you on a journey through the forty years of Daniel’s life after the second world war and tackling ageing, searching for life’s meaning, and the complexity of relationships, in a way that it hard to surpass.
In one of life’s weird coincidences, I finished the book on a Sunday evening in February, on a day when that morning I had done a walk that included Hambledon Common and had been urged by a man in his eighties to backtrack and take a different path as we had ‘missed the view’ and must see it and the bench that had been placed there. My friend and I did so, and were glad we did. That evening, back home as I finished the book, which had not until that point been set anywhere near the Surrey Hills, I discovered Daniel settling for his final years in the village we had walked through and making his way to that very bench to contemplate life.