This is quite a difficult novel to review, it is fascinating in many respects – especially as it was Olivia Manning’s first novel. Though the plot – is a simple one, a portrait of three complex people set against a backdrop of rising tensions.
Olivia Manning is probably best known now for her Balkan and Levant trilogies. I read The Balkan Trilogy a very long time ago, and have been meaning to re-read it for a while. The Wind Changes was sent to me this Christmas by my Librarything Virago secret Santa, and I enjoyed it a lot.
The setting for The Wind Changes is Ireland, 1921 – just before the Anglo-Irish truce. Olivia Manning’s mother was from Ulster, and she spent many holidays in Galway and Co. Clare with her cousins. The descriptions of the beach at Carrickmoy are those of someone who knew the area viewing it with the nostalgia that the distance a few years and childhood memories bring.
“Strange things were washed ashore here. Here the children found the bodies of the whip-tailed skate and of devil fish that were good to eat but when caught had to be beheaded at sea that their frightful appearance might not frighten away custom. Sometimes they found dead monsters that, living, ventured so seldom toward the land there was no common name for them. Amongst the stones they found coins worn thinner than paper and the marvellous, fine vertebrae bones of great cod, and sometimes lifebelts and wreckage bearing the names of ships long ago lost and forgotten. Once they found a sailor’s tunic and once a plait of yellow hair.”
The novel opens as Elizabeth Dearborn a young art student and Arion, a middle-aged writer sit in a car in the mist awaiting the arrival of Sean Murtough at a pier in Ireland. Sean is an Irish republican rebel, Arion and Elizabeth sympathisers. Sean is young, but the Catholic rebels are looking to him to return Riordan their legendary leader from exile. The three are a peculiar group, and although Elizabeth has been sleeping with Arion – she is soon drawing closer to the younger Sean. Sean’s plan, the plan other republicans are counting on is to bring Riordan back to Dublin by the end of that week, where he will take his rightful place as their leader and start to heal the wounds left by the memory of the Easter rising of 1916.
“The evening began to fall. Outside Ballingar their way was barred by a crowd that flowed loosely and waveringly over the road. Men and women stood talking in twos and threes. They talked with the eager impotence of anger whilst large groups of police and Black and Tans, arm in arm for mutual protection, moved silently round the fringe, Sean blew his horn. People turned their faces whitely towards the car but did not move. The police made no attempt to clear a way. Their power had gone. Had they given an order it would have been an excuse for a riot.”
Sean is a crusader, subject to mood swings and self-doubt – he is too reliant upon Arion to be a credible instigator of dangerous plots. Sean doesn’t much like Elizabeth at first, later his dreams of a united Ireland means he has little interest in spending time with Elizabeth really. Sean is sick, he believes himself doomed, dying of consumption like two of his brothers and a grandfather, his third brother was killed during the Easter Week Rising, shot by the English.
Elizabeth, with her memories of a childhood spent largely in Carrickmoy, is lonely, unsure of what it is she wants from her life, or how to go about finding it. Elizabeth is most surely a portrait of Olivia Manning herself as Isobel English asserts in her introduction to this VMC edition. Olivia Manning; had admitted to great loneliness around this period, had studied art, had connections to Ireland and appears to have had her own opinion about the British rule in Ireland.
Arion is an Englishman, a novelist he also reports on the troubles for an English newspaper. He has left his wife some years earlier, and has two daughters and a son still at Eton. Arion is a republican sympathiser, but his English accent can either get him into trouble or out of it when the Black and Tans are stopping cars on the road out of Dublin.
All three are separated and oddly connected by their loneliness none of them seem happy. Tension builds as the week progresses. The scent of betrayal is in the air as the day for Riordan’s return draws nearer.
I really enjoyed Olivia Manning’s writing, and it has made me keener than ever to re-read The Balkan Trilogy.