by Olivia Manning
Series: Fortunes of War #2
Publication Date: January 1, 1981
Project: a century of women
It’s the spring of 1941 and the German army’s eastward march appears unstoppable. In the Egyptian desert, the young officer Simon Boulderstone, twenty years old and wet behind the ears, waits in dreadful anticipation of his first experience of combat. The people of Cairo are waiting, too. In crowded apartments, refugees from Europe wait; in palm-shaded mansions, Anglo-Egyptians wait. At night they are joined in the city’s bars and cabarets by soldiers on leave, looking for a last dance before going off to the front lines.
Into this mix enter Guy and Harriet Pringle, whose story began in Olivia Manning’s magisterial Balkan Trilogy. They have successfully escaped Nazi-occupied Greece but are dogged by uncertainties about their marriage. And, as Simon discovers that the realities of war are both more prosaic and more terrible than he had imagined, Harriet is forced to confront her precarious health and her place beside her husband.
As is often the case, while I meant to read this second omnibus on the immediate heels of finishing the first, I didn’t. I needed a bit of a break from Harriet and, especially, Guy Pringle. It took me several months to pull this chunkster off my NYRB shelf.
I am so glad I did. When I last left Harriet and Guy, they had managed to publicly shame a quartet (or so) of deeply self-centered jerks into allowing a much larger group of refugees to board their ships for Egypt. This set of three books begins with Harriet and Guy in Cairo. Guy is still bound to employment with The Institute, but there is no one there to oversee him.
The three books in this omnibus are The Danger Tree, published in 1977, The Battle Lost and Won, published in 1978, and The Sum of Things, published in 1981. Harriet and her marriage remain a narrative focus, but Manning adds a second POV character, Simon Boulderstone, a young English soldier who arrives in Egypt at the beginning of The Danger Tree. I really loved his contribution to the story, which brought verisimilitude as well as an emotional anchor to the trilogy.
The title of the first book is a reference to the mango tree which grows outside of the room where Harriet and Guy are living in Cairo. I struggled with Guy in The Balkan Trilogy. That did not change throughout these three books. I know that the entire six book cycle is based, at least in part, on the author’s experience as a young married woman during the war. How she did not punch her husband in the face will remain a mystery for all eternity.
Because Guy is worse, here. He is self-centered and pompous, barely giving his wife a thought from time to time. He has a grotesquely overblown sense of his own importance. When Harriet tries to make him understand that he shouldn’t treat her like shit, his response is basically that she is “a part of him” and he can treat himself like shit if he wants. He constantly puts her last. She should have shoved him out of a window and gone home. There were a few times that I had to rage quit and walk away.
But, even for all of this, I loved this book. It was a journey that I won’t soon forget, and I am already planning to reread it in a few years or so.
I want to close this with the Coda that Manning put at the end of the final book:
Two more years were to pass before the war ended. Then, at last, peace, precarious peace, came down upon the world and the survivors could go home. Like the stray figures left on the stage at the end of a great tragedy, they had now to tidy up the ruins of war and in their hearts bury the noble dead.
I wonder what happened to Simon and Harriet and Guy. Did they return to England and find work in peacetime? Did the Pringle’s marriage survive peace as it survived war? Did Guy ever pull his head out of his ass and figure out how to be a decent human being?
These are questions that will never be answered.