The "long journey home" trope has been around in literature since Homer, but in his second work of fiction, playwright and novelist Jason Hewitt has freshened it considerably, with a serious and compelling look at what went on at the end of the Second World War.

His is a more original angle, too. A multitude of books that take either of the world wars as a setting has been unleashed in the last 18 months, with commemorations of the start of the First World War last year and the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second this year. Hewitt’s tale of an English soldier stranded somewhere in eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War, trying to find his way back to England, is certainly timely. But it looks at an area that has long been dominated by other stories, the sort inspired by footage of couples celebrating outside Buckingham Palace, street parties, flag-waving, Churchill’s two fingers for "Victory".

Across the Channel, of course, it was different. Hewitt’s protagonist, Owen, wakes "in some foreign field" (this beginning evokes Rupert Brooke’s poem), hurt and confused, his memory all but gone. He staggers about and comes across the wreckage of a train crash, bodies and detritus everywhere. As despair overwhelms him, a teenager called Janek saves him and gives him food. Together, even though neither speaks the other’s language, they understand that they are both looking for something similar: the fate of each man’s brother.

They set out together, trying to dodge German and Russian soldiers. Owen struggles to establish exactly where they are and who he is: odd flashes of memory serve only to unsettle him further. On their travels, they come across a young Polish girl, Irena, who is trying to give her baby away. She joins them, and the four of them form an uneasy group on the way to Leipzig, where they understand American soldiers are based. By now they know the war is over, but until they reach safety, the world is still a dangerous place.

Hewitt has apparently made the same journey that his protagonist takes, a year-long trek by foot and train. He also learned to speak Czech. Some might find this a little self-indulgent but his research, not only "in the field", as it were, but also in the library, covering the history and political books on the period, has given his novel a superbly authentic sense of time and place. This is a truly compelling tale about people we very quickly learn to care deeply about. Why does Irena want to get rid of her baby so badly? Why is Janek such an angry young man? And why did Owen betray his beloved brother, Max?

These questions surface en route, and their arrival at the American rescue effort in Leipzig answers some of them, but sets up others too. What Hewitt shows is a world utterly broken apart, that a generation of battered individuals must somehow try and put right. The contrast between the cheerily exasperated and inevitably well-fed Americans, who are parachuted in to sort out the various masses of refugees, and the hollow desperation of starving survivors like Owen, Janek and Irena, is heartbreakingly painful and utterly convincing.

This more psychological aspect of damaged personalities is mirrored, perhaps obviously, in the wrecked landscape around them. But Hewitt is a sensitive enough writer not to push the contrasts and the comparisons too hard. Each character, even Irena, is trying to return to what and who they were before the war, but the past isn’t quite as compelling, for the reader anyway, as the present.

Once they arrive in Leipzig, Irena tells lies to try to get out of Europe altogether; Janek is interested only in revolution; Owen is pulled between a desire to go home and a need to see that his fellow travellers are looked after. Their voyage has emotionally entwined them, whether they like it or not (and Irena’s occasional couplings with Janek demonstrate this horrible pull-and-push). Their background stories struggle to compete with what they are facing now. This is shown, for example, in Owen’s relationship with his brother Max, which feels more flimsily drawn than his relationship with Janek, a teenager he hardly knows.

Ultimately, though, Hewitt’s tale is a truly absorbing read, the kind you finish in a single sitting, and is a most welcome addition to the body of wartime tales. He doesn’t hide the horror but doesn’t revel in it either, a sign of both compassion and real artistic control.