For innumerable people in Great Britain, the second half of the forties was a period of return to homes and former occupations after the volcanic dislocations of the war. Michael, having repeatedly risked his life as an Air Force pilot, is now back in his comfortable and privileged existence as a fellow of a major Oxford college. After the excitements of her years in SOE, the Special Operations Executive, his cousin Christine is attempting to fulfil her tutor’s high expectations of her as a classical scholar of note.
For the German prisoners crowded together in a camp on the outskirts of the town there have been no such returns. But at least the previously sever edict against any sort of fraternisation has been in some measures relaxed. So it is that a chance conversation that Michael initiates with a solitary prisoner, Thomas, precipitates a friendship between the fastidious don and a little group of prisoners, whom he eventually introduces to Christine.
Soon Michael has become profoundly attached to Klaus, a previously robust East Prussian hideously wounded before his capture, who remains unaware of the dormant passion that he has aroused. Christine starts a tumultuous affair with Thomas, a would-be composer. Inevitably the relationship is a difficult one in a world in which many of the victors oppose relationships of any kind with representatives of the hated enemy.
King’s descriptions of the grimness of the lives of Germans, labouring outdoors in the bitter old, and of the conflict between the natural humanity of the British and their desire for reparations, are etched with memorable sharpness.