Operation Heartbreak is one of Persephone book’s older titles; book number 51, a slim little volume, gloriously written, it is quietly and unforgettably poignant, its title very apt indeed, as I finished with a little lump in my throat.
Willie Maryngton is a man with the heart and soul of a soldier. Born in 1900, he is just too young to fight in WW1 – having eventually received his commission, he is ready to go to France just as the armistice is signed – and too old for WW2. Willie was born into a military family, his father, a soldier, was killed when Willie was just fourteen.
Willie’s father had made his best friend, Willie’s guardian, however he too is killed in that first terrible war that took Willie’s father. The widow of Willie’s guardian, however, takes Willie into her home, and brings him up alongside her two sons and daughter. It is a happy home; Willie enjoys a close friendship with Garnet, Horry and Felicity, that will survive into middle-age.
“That afternoon Horry accompanied Willie to London. The sorrows of youth, like the sorrows of childhood, although they may leave deep wounds and lasting scars, can be quickly, if only temporarily banished by other distractions. Among the crowds that thronged the streets that day, waving flags and cheering vociferously, there were few who waved more enthusiastically or cheered louder than Willie, who had felt a few hours earlier that there was nothing left to live for on earth.”
Willie is utterly devastated to have his military ambitions thwarted by the end of the First World War, and this sets the young man off on the road to a lifetime of disappointment. Despite the end of the war, Willie remains in the regiment he joined just before hostilities ended. Willie is a romantic about warfare, almost pitifully so, having missed out on one war, he spends the next twenty-one years longing for another chance to honour his father and serve his country. This is an idea that many people (especially today) will find difficult to reconcile. Yet somehow Willie remains a sympathetic character, his romanticism however misplaced never wavers, he is a career soldier, who never goes into battle. As a young officer Willie is a popular and cheerful member of the regiment, a keen horseman, who shudders at the idea of a mechanised army of tanks – the future according to many of his colleagues.
As the years pass, Willie enjoys a few years of service in India, where he also experiences his first doomed love affair. Following a shorter period of service in Egypt, Willie heads home to continue his service in England. Here he meets up again after several years’ absence with Horry and Felicity, and later Garnet, his foster family. Felicity and her brother Horry are both on the stage, and this bohemian and free lifestyle suits Felicity rather more than marriage is ever likely to. So although Felicity remains a constant though unreliable presence in his life, Willie is destined to be disappointed even in his love for her. Poor Willie is forced to endure service alongside men just a few years older than him, who saw action in the First World War, who having risen above the rank of major (Willie stuck at Captain) get to command units overseas when the Second World War eventually comes. Willie’s life is a series of deep and hurting disappointments, these do take their toll and he gradually becomes a sadder man, kept in London during the Second World War – retaining still his rank of captain.
“When he awoke next morning to a dark December day and found himself in his bleak, ill-kept bachelor flat, with no very clear recollection of how he had got there, he felt that he had reached the lowest rung on the ladder of depression. There was even a moment when he contemplated putting an end to his life, but he remembered having once heard his father say that to commit suicide was the act of a coward, and therefore whatever fate might befall him, he knew he must face it rather than run away.”
I don’t want to say anything much about the ending of this novel, however – whatever you do, if you are reading this book don’t read the last twenty – twenty five pages or so on the bus. It is gloriously; beautifully poignant, based upon some true events of the Second World War. The ending alone, means I will not forget Willie Maryngton in a hurry, and I will, almost certainly read this book again one day.