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Another world

One thing that A Century of Books is doing for me, is making me read books I have had for some time and might otherwise have continued to overlook. Another World was the only book I had to fill my 1998 slot, and I have enjoyed a lot of Barker novels before – particularly her two war trilogies – which I think are outstanding.

In Another World, Pat Barker takes us back to the First World War, only in the fractured memories of Geordie, a proud veteran of the Somme. It is the late 1990s and Geordie at 101 is one of the last remaining WW1 veterans left – Geordie is dying now, those around him know he doesn’t have much time left, and his dying is painful and difficult. Geordie has always been a resilient character, he’s lived a long life, but it is only now, as his days start running down that he becomes haunted by the horrors of the trenches and the loss of his brother. In the past Geordie didn’t talk about the war, he didn’t join the parades for remembrance, and would silently wear his poppy just one day a year without comment. Now the war is back with Geordie – the memories of that long-ago conflict troubling his sleep.

Geordie’s grandson Nick has recently moved into a late Victorian house with his second wife Fran, Fran’s son Gareth and her and Nick’s toddler Jasper. With Nick’s ex-wife having been sectioned recently, his thirteen-year-old daughter Miranda is coming to stay – Fran is heavily pregnant with their second child – and the household is anything but harmonious. Gareth is a surly, difficult eleven-year-old – spending hours playing on computer games and quietly seething in hatred toward everyone. Miranda has learned to hide her feelings, yet she is no happier than Gareth – any plans Nick had to harmonise this step-family – we soon see might not be that easy. From Fran’s point of view – it doesn’t help that Nick is running off to see Geordie most days either.

Trying to engage everybody in a project, Fran suggests a decorating party and they all start stripping the wallpaper from the living room wall. Slowly a disturbing mural is revealed, the portraits of the Fanshawe family who first lived in the house when it was built- a portrait with some disturbing additions.

“At the centre of the group, uncovered last, is a small fair-haired boy, whose outstretched arms, one podgy fist resting on the knee of either parent, forms the base-line of the composition. Patches of wallpaper still cling to the painting like scabs of chicken pox, but even so its power is clear. Victorian paterfamilias, wife and children: two sons, a daughter. Pinned out, exhibited. Even without the exposed penis, the meticulously delineated and hated breasts, you’d have sensed the tension in this family, with the golden-haired toddler at its dark centre.”

So, when Miranda declares ‘it’s us’ we sense immediately the collective shudder – and wonder – whether she could be right. There are ghostly sightings of a young girl in and around the house too, and despite everything else he has going on, Nick becomes fascinated in the dark and murderous history of the Fanshawe family. Fanshawe snr made his money from armaments – while the war destroyed men like Geordie and his brother – it made men like Fanshawe.

Meanwhile Geordie is moved briefly into hospital – where he insists to the doctors that it his old bayonet wound is the trouble. He seems to like the idea that the old wound is what’s killing him, when he knows perfectly well that it is cancer. Geordie’s daughter – Nick’s aunt – is always on hand – but Geordie forgets that Frieda is herself well over 70 – and running back and forth to Geordie’s house, and the hospital is taking its toll.

“They make the journey to the bathroom in slow stages. So much effort to get to the side of the bed, so much to push the red shiny, scaly legs and feet into the slippers which Nick places ready for him. Then a rest before the slow shuffle along the ward, Nick at his rear bunching up the smock behind him like a bridesmaid holding up the bride’s train, concealing Granddad’s lean and pleated arse from the gaze of passing nancies.”

Barker questions the concept of memory – we see the war from an entirely different angle, through the distorting lens of time and memory. The oral histories that Geordie has recorded for a University colleague of Nick’s are brought out, as Nick tries to understand the vulnerable old man he has always had a special connection to.

Pat Barker is not one to shy away from difficult storylines – and here she combines the memories of WW1 – with sibling rivalries, even sibling hatred and the truly horrible things that children can be capable of. The past encroaches on the present for every generation, everywhere there are echoes of the past.

Another World is hugely readable – filled with Barker’s astute observations and brilliant understanding of the psychology of families.

October in review

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We turned the clocks back an hour at the weekend. Sunday was spent telling each other that yesterday it had been such and such a time – a yearly tradition in this part of the world that always makes me smile. Suddenly we have only two months of the year left, and again I’m forced to remember how true it is that the years go faster as we get older. I have always had a slight fondness for November – which I know not everyone shares – fireworks, poppies for remembrance, Christmas markets starting up – I quite like it really.

October was an ok reading month – ending with a half term holiday spent by the sea and visiting glorious moorland. Restorative and wonderfully bracing, and the extra reading time thrown in just what I needed.

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October began with me reading Early Spring a memoir of childhood and adolescence by Tove Ditlevsen, Early Spring faithfully recreates the sights and sounds of Tove Ditlevsen’s 1930s childhood environment. It was a childhood of great poverty, and loneliness and yet Ditlevsen grew up with a burning determination to write.

Staying with Relations by Rose Macaulay was the book which accompanied me on y weekend away to this year’s Bookcrossing convention. It is a book worth reading for Macaulay fans, and I enjoyed it, though I admit it is not as such a good novel as either The World my Wilderness, Told by an Idiot or Crewe Train. It tells the story of Catherine Grey a young writer who accepts an invitation to stay with her aunt, cousin and her aunt’s second husband and step children at her house in the Guatemalan jungle.

A Spark novel that I certainly hadn’t previously heard of, The Only Problem is a wonderfully entertaining novel. An academic writing a book on the Book of Job while his estranged wife runs around with French terrorists and a policewoman masquerades as a housekeeper – could any of this come from anyone other than Muriel Spark?

I had been looking forward to the second book in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy, and The Battle Lost and Won really didn’t disappoint. Here we continue to follow the fortunes of Harriet and Guy Pringle and others in Cairo, as well as young Simon Boulderstone, a young officer fighting the war in the desert.

Seven for a Secret by Mary Webb was a book that I had had for years, never quite managing to get around to it. My A Century of books was the impetus I needed – and it turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable read. Gillian Lovekin is eighteen as the novel opens, living with her father, on his farm in the Shropshire hills. Gillian is a very pretty girl, a head full of dreams and longings – including for men to lose their hearts to her. It is rooted in the Shropshire countryside of Webb’s birth, it tells the story of Gillian and Robert Rideout and the stranger who comes along and disturbs their rural community.

White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen is a powerful little novella from Peirene Press. A novel about survival, White Hunger takes us to the heart of the Finnish famine in 1867. Uncompromising description, and some quite lovely writing, stop this from being utterly depressing – but it does make for a tough little read.

Another World by Pat Barker like Seven for a Secret was only pulled from my shelves because of ACOB. It was the only book I had for 1998 – and I already knew I enjoy Barker’s writing. In this novel, the shadow of WW1 falls across three generations of one family. It is the 1990s Geordie a WW1 veteran is dying at 101 years old. His grandson and his second wife have recently moved into an old house with their various squabbling children and a spooky old mural is revealed as they start to decorate.

Symposium by Muriel Spark was thoroughly enjoyable. It starts with guests at a dinner party – introducing us to quite a number of characters all at once. The narrative moves back and forth in time – slowly revealing the past of one of the guests in particular.

My very small book group picked Vox by Christina Dalcher as our November read. I decided to read it quickly while away as I can’t count it for my ACOB and the last two months of the year will be a bit of a race to the finish. Billed as a re-imagining of The Handmaid’s Tale – we were all very excited. I don’t want to pre-empt my review too much but – yes, it is very compelling, very readable but it is no Handmaid’s Tale and should not be seen as such. Part speculative fiction part thriller – it’s an entertaining read, but I can’t say I have been blown away.

So here we are – November 1st. My plan for the next few weeks as I mentioned is to make good progress with the last sixteen books of ACOB. I shall, however be reading Curriculum Vitae for #readingMuriel2018 and Life Before Man for Margaret Atwood reading month.

I have just started reading The Diviners by Margaret Laurence. I believe it is strictly speaking the fourth in her Manawaka series of novels, and I have only read and the first and second, but as far as I can tell it doesn’t matter what order they are read in.

As always, I love to hear about what you have been reading and about your plans for coming month.

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A strong sense of place is everything to me as a reader, so often the places live as long – or even longer – in my mind than the characters who inhabit them. So, I was delighted to be asked to take part in the blog tour for this wonderful book. A book which celebrates the landscapes of our favourite stories. Places, which are as important to those stories as the characters that inhabit them.

John Sutherland recalls Gertrude Stein in his introduction to this remarkable volume.

“‘There is no there, there,’ Gertrude Stein, now by choice a Parisian, once wrote haughtily of her home city Oakland. These are words which could not be said of any of the books examined and described in this volume.”

I love that, there is no there, there. I know just what she means, and it makes so much sense – especially I suppose for writers – that special connection with place.

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This is the kind of sumptuously large volume, that is perfectly easy to lose oneself in for long periods of time. A book I see finding its way under many Christmas trees this year, a perfect book to spend Boxing day with, a large slice of Christmas cake and a glass of something very nice indeed at your side. There is a wonderful nostalgia somehow, in reading about these places once encountered perhaps decades ago and never quite forgotten.

“In Anne of Green Gables place is a character, but it is also the plot. L.M Montgomery’s beloved novel tells a story – of a young orphaned girl, who learns to find a place she calls home – but the setting matters more, and differently, than it does in most other children’s fiction.”

Literary Landscapes brings together really well-known authors with the landscapes and the novels that they are most closely associated with. The list of writers and their works is a veritable who’s who, classic writers like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Thomas Hardy and Emily Bronte, nestle up against twentieth century writers like Daphne Du Maurier, Virginia Woolf, Tove Jansson and A A Milne, bringing us right up to date celebrating works by Eleanor Catton, Orhan Pamuk and Elena Ferrante.

These essays, written by a variety of contributors, names such as John Sutherland and Robert Macfarlane, (a list of who wrote which piece is in the back) – examine the nature and importance of that landscape within each particular story. The importance of Bath in Persuasion, for instance.

“class-bound and smitten with hollow gossip and social rivalry, despite its elegance.”

Bath was perfect, we are told, symbolically that is, for Anne Elliot’s departure from her previous life, and for her happier future. We are reminded of Clarissa Dalloway’s London in Virginia Woolf’s classic 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway. I recall as a reader, how the city comes to life in Woolf’s novel, it is a character in its own right, and the author of this piece recognises it as a novel of empathy in which London is placed in the heads and the hearts of its characters. New York, the setting for Edith Wharton’s Age of Innocence was important because the conventionalities and traditions of its society, were pivotal in the story of Newland Archer and Countess Olenska. The Côte D’Azur, the backdrop to Françoise Sagan’s Bonjour Tristesse, is a stunning location, the kind of a place we dream of perhaps, inhabited by the idle rich, sun drenched and fashionable. As the author to this piece says, it is an idyllic setting for a story which shows the turbulence that lies beneath its apparent perfection.

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I haven’t read all the pieces yet – especially as there are many entries for books I haven’t read but might like to – and some pieces are slightly spoilery if you haven’t already read that novel. However, I spent a long-time mulling over the pieces of my favourite books, revelling in the real-life settings of Mrs Dalloway, Rebecca, The Return of the Native, O! Pioneers, Winnie-the-Pooh and The Great Gatsby. Elena Ferrante’s Naples leaps from the page, partly due to the extraordinary image accompany the piece, as in discussing her Neapolitan quartet’s first novel; My Brilliant Friend, the author tells us…

“Boundaries are essential to the novel, and in transgression of boundaries, both physical and social, becomes a recurring theme. As children, Lenù and Lila venture through the tunnel which leads them out of their neighbourhood, but on the other side they grew fearful and soon turn back.”

Reproduced throughout the book are photographs, drawings, paintings and maps – of these wonderfully evocative literary landscapes, in both town and country. England, America, France, Italy, New Zealand, Russia. India and Australia – and many other places too, this is an irresistible exploration of the places we already think we know, and the fabulous books that took us there. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I shall continue to read and re-read it.

Thank you to Alison Menzies and the people at Modern Books for the book and the chance to take part in the blog tour.

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The nights are drawing in on this side of the planet, which means Phase 5 of #ReadingMuriel2018 is coming to an end already. Phase 5 has been all about the novels Muriel Spark published in the 1980s and 1990s. This roundup coming out a couple of days early, to make way for other things.

Loitering with Intent (1981) – shortlisted for Booker Prize
The Only Problem (l984)
Far Cry From Kensington (1988)
Symposium (1990)
Reality and dreams (1996)

Were what we had to choose from.

I had already read A Far Cry from Kensington, it made my books of the year list in 2017, so I was looking forward to reading more from the same period of Spark’s writing. After thoroughly enjoying Loitering with Intent and The Only Problem, I now view the 1980s as a period in Muriel Spark’s writing that I really engage with. I am squeezing Symposium into the very end of this phase 5 period, but it looks like I shall be reviewing it at the beginning of phase 6.

Sian read Loitering with Intent too, but it didn’t quite tick all the boxes for her, she decided she might be all Sparked out. Sometimes, we read the right books at the wrong times, I know that all too well. Meg also read Loitering with Intent and found Spark’s wonderful characters to be really quite a bunch – they are! Loitering with Intent does seem to be a favourite with many people, I have had a number of comments on the blog and on Twitter telling me it’s their favourite Spark. Michael from LT who continues to work his way through all of Spark’s novels rated it five stars calling it the most autobiographical of Spark’s novels. Jacqui from Jacquiwine reviewed Loitering with Intent during the summer, calling it ‘a marvellous piece of meta fiction about the work of writers’

Grier has also read The Only Problem, which I am glad to say she enjoyed too. Jennifer agreed with me, that the ingredients of this one could only have come from the imagination of Muriel Spark. An academic writing a book on the Book of Job while his estranged wife runs around with French terrorists and a policewoman masquerades as a housekeeper. The Only Problem was another five-star read for Michael.

A Far Cry from Kensington is such a good novel, it is probably the novel that really made me want to read a lot more by Muriel Spark. Mary read A Far Cry from Kensington, rating it 4 stars and calling it witty, clever, fun. Caroline from Bookword, reviewed it too saying how Spark’s depiction of the publishing world in the 1950s, which she knew, reveals how few people care about the written word and how many of them are more concerned with their reputation, connections or just hanging on to their job. Michael from LT was perhaps slightly less enamoured, rating it three stars, calling it more catty than clever.

Monica from Monica’s bookish life read and reviewed Symposium, which she found compelling enjoying the unexpected twists and turns. Jennifer joined me in squeezing Symposium into the end of the month. I enjoyed it a lot – though my review won’t be up for a few days. Michael rated it 4 and half stars but admits it does get a bit crowded with its large cast of characters. Though I can’t say I found it confusing, which is always the worry with a large cast of characters.

Michael from LT is the only one I have seen reading Reality and Dreams, rating it three and a half stars, calling it a thin rehash of themes already familiar to Spark novels containing echoes of other Spark novels.

Another post that dropped into my blog reader recently about Muriel Spark came from Lizzy – at Lizzy’s Literary life. She visited Edinburgh and joined a walking tour of sites associated with Muriel Spark.

Phase 6 starts on the 1st of November, just a few days away, and it seems unbelievable that we are here already. Phase 6 is a choice between Spark’s final two novels:

Aiding and Abetting (2000) and The Finishing School (2004)
Spark’s autobiography Curriculum Vitae (1992) and the biography
Appointment in Arezzo: a friendship with Muriel Spark – Alan Taylor by Martin Stannard (2017).

I have Curriculum Vitae for my 1992 slot of ACOB, I also really want to read Appointment in Arezzo, which I recently bought, it looks excellent. Though that will be dependent on my finishing ACOB with time to spare.

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Let me know if I have missed your thoughts/review for Phase 5 – and I will try to remember to edit you in. Also, I would love to know if you’re planning to join in with the last phase of #ReadingMuriel2018 – and what you plan to read

white hunger

Translated by Emily and Fleur Jeremiah

For the 2012 slot in my A century of books, I chose White Hunger by Aki Ollikainen, a Finnish novella which has won itself a string of awards. Peirene Press publish little nuggets of European literature, of under 200 pages. I think this must surely be my first Finnish novel.

Running to less than 140 pages, White Hunger is a story which feels surprisingly epic. A novel about survival, White Hunger takes us to the heart of the Finnish famine in 1867. Despite the distance of years, this is a story that is still enormously relevant, for here Ollikainen tells the story of all refugees. The turned backs, suspicion and hard, blank stares which greet those in the most desperate need – that, has sadly never changed.

In a small Finnish town two brothers are managing to survive fairly well despite the crippling winter and lack of food that has brought so much misery to much of the country. Teo is a doctor, his brother Lars some kind of local politician. Ollikainen also gives voice to ‘the senator’ who shows us the callous disregard of the government to the people in their hour of need.

“one day, maybe, there will be talk of things other than bread, the lack of it, or hunger and diseases. People would talk about the coming of spring, the melting of the ice. About the swans someone spotted on the Holy Lake. About the neighbouring fields being flooded.”

As the cruel winter continues to bite hard, with blizzards and snow laying deeply all over the country, people begin to add bark to what passes as bread these days. A farmer’s wife, Marja from the north prepares to leave her home. Her husband is dying, and Marja, banks up the fire and places a bowl of snow at his side. She can do no more. She must leave and take her two children; Mataleena and Juho with her. They are not the only ones on the move, many people have set out from their homes in a desperate search for food. Marja believes that if they can make it to St. Petersburg they will find real bread. That far off city takes on an almost mythical quality – as in time Marja becomes subject to hallucinatory visions.

“Far away she sees the trees edging the open space; they change into the silhouettes of spires and palaces in the Tsar’s city. They flee, fluttering, into nothingness, and towards this nothingness Marja crawls, Juho in her arms. The Tsar himself descends to the crown of the biggest spruce, but dressed up as death, as a black raven.”

The odds are stacked against Marja and the children, the weather is appalling, and they are on foot, weakened already by the lack of the food. The country is rife with beggars, and there are few who welcome them. No one has anything to spare – and those who don’t slam the door in the family’s faces, offer little in the way of hospitality; a little rest, a bowl of thin gruel.

This novella is brutally uncompromising in its descriptions of hunger and desperation. The loneliness and isolation that comes with such desperate need and vulnerability makes for grim reading. This is certainly not a book to pick up if you are already feeling a bit down. However, the writing is absolutely beautiful, and while the images left behind are raw, it is the beauty of the prose which saved the novella from being unremittingly depressing.

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It’s funny how a book can sometimes surprise us. I very nearly didn’t read this novel at all. I have had it tbr for absolutely ages, and it was the only book I had for 1922 in my ACOB. I have no memory at all of where it came from. When I was in my teens I read Precious Bane, Mary Webb’s best-known novel, in fact, my sister and I were both obsessed with it for a while. I think I read Gone to Earth too, but I can’t remember that one at all – it certainly didn’t leave an impression in the same way as Precious Bane did. Seven for a Secret was the fourth of Mary Webb’s six novels, coming two years before Precious Bane.

Mary Webb is known as the writer Stella Gibbons parodied in her novel Cold Comfort Farm. A Shropshire novelist and poet. Mary Webb’s work is very much rooted in the Shropshire landscape she grew up in. Somewhere along the line I got the idea that I mightn’t get on so well with Mary Webb now Her obvious romanticism might have suited my teenage years but would probably irritate me now. Mary Webb is very descriptive, – her storytelling comes from the same tradition as writers like Sheila Kaye-Smith (who I also read recently) and Thomas Hardy – to whom this novel is dedicated. Hers is perhaps a style that won’t suit everyone, there is an old-fashioned quality to it, but unexpectedly I loved it.

The one aspect to the novel I might take slight issue with is Webb’s use of dialect, true she does it spectacularly well – but I’m never sure if dialect is really necessary. Can’t a writer merely tell us that a person speaks with a particular accent, throw in a few colloquialisms and allow the reader’s imagination to do the rest? That’s probably how a modern writer might approach it. Of course, Mary Webb was writing at a time when this kind of romantic writing was more in vogue than it is now. I found I got to grips with the dialect fairly quickly – but I could understand it putting some readers off.

I saw seven magpies in a tree,
One for you and six for me.
One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret,
That’s never been told.

Gillian Lovekin is eighteen as the novel opens, living with her father, on his farm in the Shropshire hills. Gillian is a very pretty girl, a head full of dreams and longings – including for men to lose their hearts to her. She imagines herself in a fabulous gown, and dreams of experiencing London. There is in Gillian, a little of that slightly self-important selfishness that the young girls can sometimes have. She’s young, apt to make errors in the pursuit of happiness.

Gillian and her father are looked after by Mrs Makepeace – whose second husband Jonathan works on the farm too – he is quite a character, in a constant battle with every inanimate object in his path – if there is an accident to be had, Jonathan will have it. Mrs Makepeace’s son from her first marriage; Robert Rideout is Mr Lovekin’s cowman-shepherd. A thoughtful, dreamy character his strong, kind hands induce the cows to produce more milk, ewes drop their lambs safely. In his own time, he writes poetry in secret, and has slowly but inevitably fallen in love with Gillian. However, neither Gillian or her father consider a cowman-shepherd as suitable husband material. Robert has a friend Gipsy Johnson, who tells Robert a sad, perplexing tale of a lost child. In time Robert comes to think he can solve the mystery.

While Gillian is away visiting her aunt, a stranger; Ralph Elmer comes to live at the old inn ‘The Mermaid’. Elmer is a big personality and seems to have his finger in a lot of pies. He is accompanied by his mute housekeeper Rwth, and his surly old manservant Fringal. Right from the start Robert is unsettled by Elmer.

“And with the acute intuition of the poet he saw that Gillian would assuredly come back; that she would meet Elmer; that Elmer’s philosophy of self would go down before the passion she would arouse; that maybe she would be his.”

Gillian arrives home, and Elmer sets his cap at her – he enlists the sinister Fringal in his plan – which certainly doesn’t include marriage. Robert finds the distance between himself and his old friend Gillian widening. Gillian is hugely fond of Robert, her affection is growing, but it is as if she is too stubborn to admit it.

Meanwhile Robert can’t help but wonder about Elmer’s housekeeper Rwth – the girl is horribly bullied by Elmer – helpless and shrunken into herself she is a rather pitiful figure. On his visits to the inn Robert can’t help but show her simple kindness – and from then on, the girl gazes out of her attic window across the fields to the farm where he is working, utterly smitten. Gillian is also drawn to the strange silent girl, the two make jam together and Gillian starts to teach Rwth how to write so that she can communicate at last.

“The fresh summer breezes came in, laden with hay and moss and bracken scents. Dysgwlfas Farm miniature but clear, met their eyes when they looked up from their work. And sometimes, when the wind was in the right quarter, they could hear the pleasant high note of the machine, and the shouts, made soft and short by distance, of Jonathan and Robert and their helpers as they lugged the hay.”

Gillian is at heart a good and loving young woman – over the course of the novel, she begins to lose that giddiness we saw in her at the start, and we recognise the great capacity she has within herself to love.

The stage is set for betrayal, secrets to be unearthed, and the lives of good honest people to be unsettled by the stranger in their midst. I found it a very compelling read. There are a few ends to be tied up at the end of the story – and one or two of these are slightly rushed – but that didn’t stop me enjoying this novel immensely. I flew through the last fifty pages barely breathing.

the battle lost and won

The second book in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy starts exactly where the previous one finished. Published just a year after The Danger Tree it’s a book I had been looking forward to a lot. I have enjoyed every bit of the Balkan and Levant trilogies, which – featuring many of the same characters – make up The Fortunes of War series. The fact that this one fitted so neatly into my A Century of Books was a bonus. I have been reading this second trilogy in an ebook trilogy, after my old penguin copy of The Danger Tree fell apart half way through.

We have followed Harriet and Guy Pringle since the early days of their marriage in the first year of the war in Bucharest. When we last saw them, Harriet was mainly alone in Cairo, while Guy continues working for the educational institute in Alexandria. Harriet seems destined to be always alone, her husband is infuriating, and in fact in this novel appears much less. I didn’t miss him, but I did feel for poor Harriet. Will things ever improve for her?

“He had said the climate was killing her but now, seeing the relationship from a distance, she felt the killing element was not the heat of Cairo but Guy himself.”

The Battle Lost and Won opens however, with Simon Boulderstone, who we met for the first time in The Danger Tree – he has just discovered that his brother has been killed. Both men, had been stationed with different units in the desert, and Simon had been trying to find a way to visit his brother – when permission is finally granted he arrives too late. His grief is overwhelming, the world moves to a different rhythm now. Olivia Manning knows how that connection to our sibling is like nothing else – anchoring us to home – to our past selves.

“He was twenty years of age. Hugo had been his senior by a year and they were as alike as twins. Imagining Hugo’s body disintegrating in the sand, he felt a spasm of raging indignation against this early death, and then he thought of those who must suffer with him: his parents, his relatives and the girl Edwina whom he thought of as Hugo’s girl.”

With a week’s leave still ahead of him, Simon goes to Cairo to find Edwina, the girl he met briefly when he was in Cairo before, and who he thinks of as his brother’s girl. Edwina is still living in Dobson’s embassy flat, with Harriet and Guy Pringle. She never was really Hugo’s girl, and Harriet kindly tries to shield Simon from the truth of this when he arrives red eyed and grief stricken. Edwina, no time for grieving or looking backwards, is about to go out, all dressed up. She leaves on the arm of another man; Peter Lisdoonvarna, an Irish peer and lieutenant-colonel. After a day in Cairo – Simon heads back to his unit early – much to the bemusement of the other men. Days later new orders arrive for Simon, arranged by Peter. Simon is to be a liaison officer, right along the front lines. We follow his progress as he joins his new unit, and undertakes his new duties.

One of Harriet’s almost constant companions is Lady Angela Hopper, another character we met for the first time in The Danger Tree, when following her young son’s tragic death, she left her husband and found a new way of life in Cairo. Angela, to almost everyone’s bemusement has taken up with Bill Castlebar – a poet and lecturer, with a formidable wife back in England. As the usual crowd gather in the bars frequented by the ex-pats each evening, Angela and Castlebar can be seen gazing longingly at each other. Soon, Angela takes to bringing Castlebar back to Dobson’s flat, where she too is staying, much to Harriet’s irritation. When Castlebar’s wife arrives triumphantly from England – everyone amazed she even managed it – sparks look like flying. Mona Castlebar of course realises at once what had been going on, and she is determined to see the back of Angela. It is obvious that there is no affection at all between Bill and Mona, but that doesn’t stop Mona taking possession of the miserably cowed poet. Angela can only stand back and watch in saddened fury.

“She thought, ‘Everything has gone wrong since we came here.’ The climate changed people: it preserved ancient remains but it disrupted the living. She had seen common-place English couples who, at home, would have tolerated each other for a lifetime, here turning into self-dramatizing figures of tragedy, bored, lax, unmoral, complaining and, in the end, abandoning the partner in hand for another who was neither better nor worse than the first. Inconstancy was so much the rule among the British residents in Cairo, the place, she thought was like a bureau of sexual exchange.”

Harriet has been left more and more on her own by her husband – the same old story. Guy is so guilty about not being in uniform, he feels he must be working all the time, dashing around, organising things. It is Harriet that bears the brunt of this. The climate in Egypt has not completely suited Harriet, and there has been mention, from Guy, of her leaving on the next available ship for England. When Harriet falls ill following a visit to Luxor and the Nile, she starts to seriously contemplate the idea of leaving.

So, I have just one book in this incredible epic series of novels left; The Sum of Things, which will probably have to wait till after I finish ACOB.

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