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Olivia Manning: The Levant Trilogy

This trilogy follows on from where the Balkan Trilogy left off. It will be Manning’s last published work. Harriet and Guy Pringle have managed (just) to escape from Greece and are now in Cairo. To some degree, the story follows the same path as its predecessor. Guy has trouble with the same cast of characters in the Organisation (i.e. the British Council, his employer) and ends up getting only part-time work in Alexandria while Harriet stays in Cairo, where she works for the US Embassy, her job being to stick pins in a map showing the advance of Axis forces throughout the world (i.e. including Japan). Eventually, she will lose this job when US personnel are sent over from the USA. Meanwhile, there is a fear in Cairo (and even more so in Alexandria) that Rommel will push through and capture both cities. Indeed Rommel seems to be only fifty miles from Alexandria, which causes Harriet great concern but, inevitably, does not really worry Guy, who refuses to leave, even when there is a strong rumour that Rommel will encircle the city, cutting it off. (For a map of Egypt showing Cairo, Alexandria and El Alamein, click here.) Meanwhile, even after the First Battle of El Alamein, there is panic in Cairo and many people leave, often going to Palestine or even Syria. Indeed, there is a fear, which Harriet can see from her map, that that may be dangerous, with the possibility of the Germans sweeping down through Persia, after defeating the Russians. A ship back to the UK is arranged, primarily for the women and children left in Cairo, which Harriet considers taking at Guy’s urging.

But, unlike the previous trilogy, there is a separate story here. Indeed the book starts with this story, the story of Simon Boulderstone. Simon is a new second lieutenant in the British army who has just arrived in Egypt. He had been married a week before he left and he has a brother currently in the Eighth Army, Hugo. On arrival, he has a little bit of leave, He has been instructed by his brother to buy scent in London and give it to Hugo’s girlfriend, Edwina. He does track her down but she is very busy. We soon learn that she works at the British Embassy but, as one of the prettiest single women in Cairo, she has a succession of boyfriends, of which Hugo is only one. Simon also manages to get together with a group off people visiting the pyramids. One of these people is Harriet, who has now been a year in Cairo, and she soon becomes friendly towards Simon. However, when they go and visit some rich friends of one of the group, they witness a tragedy. They visit Sir Desmond Hooper but while they are there, his wife, Angela, returns with their son, who had inadvertently picked up an undetonated hand grenade while his mother was painting, and had been killed, though his parents refuse to recognise that he is dead. Simon soon has to join his troop and he joins a mobile column, whose job is to attack the Germans when they can. The book generally alternates chapters, with one chapter telling Simon’s story and the other Guy and Harriet’s.

Guy and Harriet eventually move into a flat, shared with Dobson, the British Embassy employee they had met in Bucharest and Athens, Edwina and one or two others. Angela Hooper, now separated from her husband, will join them and become a good friend of Harriet. We follow Edwina’s love live, at first varied and then she falls in love with an Irish lord who treats her badly. Meanwhile, as in Bucharest and Athens, Harriet feels that Guy is concerned with the welfare of everyone except her, as he frequently neglects her. There is a story, repeated more than once, that there were two men on a desert island. They did not know one another but they both knew Guy Pringle. As in the previous trilogy, the expected arrival of the Germans is also key. We also follow Simon, as his mobile column spends much of its time waiting in the desert. Edwina’s Irish lord gets him a job as liaison officer in the thick of the action, which keeps him busy. Of course, with the Second Battle of Alamein, we do know what will happen as regards the Germans but Manning keeps the plot flowing with a couple of twists in both sets of stories. While it does not work quite as well as the previous trilogy, not least because some of themes and, indeed, some of the stories, are repeated, it is still a fine conclusion to an excellent body of work and a fascinating account of the British in the war but, with the exception of Simon, away from the main action.

Publishing history

The Danger Tree
First published 1977 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson

The Battle Lost and Won
First published 1978 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson

The Sum of Things
First published 1980 by Weidenfeld and Nicolson