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Posts Tagged ‘Olivia Manning’

Olivia Manning is definitely one of those writers whose books I always feel confident of enjoying. I don’t think I had known that she had published short stories, until I came across this collection in a charity shop. There are fourteen stories in A Romantic Hero – also the title of the penultimate story.

In these stories Olivia Manning explores lonely childhoods and complex adult relationships. Her stories, just like her wonderful novels are shot through with her precise understanding of people, their domestic dramas, their sadness and their humour. Arranged chronologically (I like that way of putting story collections together) these stories represent a period of almost thirty years of Manning’s creative life, with the first two stories dating from 1938 and the final story from 1966.

Rather than try and talk about all fourteen stories in this collection, I will give just a flavour of some of them. One thing I really liked was how Olivia Manning takes to so many different locations, from coastal Ireland to Cairo, to Jerusalem and a snowy wartime Romania. Many of the locations I have encountered in her novels.

“There, clutching the tufts of hard grass, they could look down into the crevices where they believed the strong-smelling weed hid giant octopi and other secret, colourless monsters.

They came to the leap.

Mrs Clandavy, on the other side of the wall, started calling them again.

‘We’re coming,’ Joseph answered as he took the leap without pausing to measure it or glance down. He went over with this bone-thin legs bent. His knickers, his ragged jersey and his socks were all too short, and his limbs stuck out from them like sticks. His neck, like a thin stalk, held precariously the weight of his large head with its thick, untidy, fawn-coloured hair. Van, a year older, taller and even thinner, followed him easily.”  

(Childhood – 1938)

The collection opens with Childhood a story paired with the one that comes after it, The Two Birthdays. Both stories are about the Clandavy children and their difficult emotional mother. In the first story Van and her younger brother Joseph are exploring the beach near their Irish home. Picking up bits of debris from the beach, checking on Mr Congo the crab they have adopted and been finding food for. Hearing their mother calling, they are forced to leave the beach and return to the house, and the difficult, confusing atmosphere, where their parents are frequently waging war, and playing the children off on one another. In the second of these, time has moved on a little, and Mrs Clandavy has separated from her husband. There is a day out with neighbours planned on the river, which Joseph has been looking forward to. These stories are slow and meandering, and I love that kind of storytelling and there is a deliciously strong sense of time and place too.

Other Irish families appear in this collection, like in The Visit, in which the narrator remembers a visit to a Lady Moxton when she was a child. She hadn’t really wanted to go and had been relying on her brother to be with her, but at the last minute he was ill in bed with a cold. She travels by tram with her bossy, ambitious mother and must face the strange old woman without her brother.

I was reminded strongly of The Balkan Trilogy in In A Winter Landscape in which we follow a British couple as they travel across Romania by train. They meet a Polish soldier and get into conversation, spending a couple of days in one another’s company on the train and overnight at a hotel. Manning’s descriptions of the landscape are lovely, her eye for detail as good as ever.

“The damp in the air had covered the carriage windows with long ferns of frost. One could scrape off the frost and see through the glass the white landscape going past. This was wheat-growing country, treeless, the fields repeating themselves in hills and hollows that looked barren, as though made of salt.”

(In a Winter Landscape – 1941)

In The Man who Stole a Tiger, we meet Tandy, a survivor of a lost troopship, he was brought back to health in a Jerusalem sanatorium. The story is narrated by a Padre who spends time with Tandy before and after the events related in the story, the Padre never really liked Tandy, who he describes as an ex-borstal boy. While recovering in Jerusalem, Tandy found himself visiting the zoo – and it was there he decided to free the tiger who he seemed to connect with and feel needed rescuing. Tandy steals the tiger and then embarks on an absurdly long journey by road. I won’t spoil the ending – which most readers will see coming – but it’s wonderfully subtle and desperately poignant.

In Twilight of the Gods Elizabeth goes on holiday to Ireland just after the war. Here she meets again a woman she knew years earlier and had once thought rather glamourous. She finds a woman greatly changed and living in the middle of an uncomfortable domestic situation which Elizabeth is keen not to get drawn into.

In the title story; A Romantic Hero, we meet Harold, living (kind of) with Angela – who he doesn’t love. One day he meets a good looking young man called David, and Harold is smitten – and imagines David feels as he does. He arranges to meet the young man the following day, and of course nothing goes quite as Harold imagines.

All in all this was a lovely collection, reminding me – had I needed it, what a great writer Olivia Manning is. When I finished the Levant trilogy around Christmas, I felt quite bereft, so I was in need of another Olivia Manning book I think.

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The Sum of Things is the third book in Olivia Manning’s Levant trilogy – therefore it is the sixth and final volume in the epic Fortunes of War series. I have read most of the series on my kindle as I find it easier to handle than the large unwieldy omnibus volumes that seem more available these days than the original single volumes.

I couldn’t help but think what a labour of love these books must have been for Olivia Manning to write. Based on some of the experiences of Olivia Manning and her husband during the Second World War. The first volume of The Balkan Trilogy; The Great Fortune was first published in 1960, this final volume published twenty years later. In Harriet and Guy Pringle – the characters at the heart of this series – we can’t help but see a young Olivia Manning, and her husband to whom she was married for many years.

“In an imperfect world, marriage was a matter of making do with what one had chosen. As this thought came into her head, she pressed Guy’s knee and he patted her hand again.”

It is always difficult to review a book that is part of a series – there is a danger of spoilers when talking about the previous books, and I do try my best not to include spoilers, however there will be slight spoilers for book five below.

This novel opens where the last novel left off. We have followed Guy and Harriet Pringle throughout their marriage and the war from their days in Romania to Greece and on to Egypt. It is still only 1942, the Pringles both still in their twenties – yet so much has happened. We have watched as Guy Pringle – a lecturer for an educational organisation, throws himself into one enthusiasm after another. Popular and busy, Guy and his activities have left Harriet by herself on numerous occasions, she has frequently felt lonely and frustrated by Guy’s distractions.

At the end of the last book; The Battle Lost and Won, Harriet exhausted and ill from the unrelenting heat, has reluctantly caved into Guy’s badgering and accepted a berth on board a ship headed for England. However, what we know, but Guy and his Cairo friends and acquaintances don’t know is that at the last moment Harriet doesn’t board the ship – but decided to go off by herself to Damascus.

As The Sum of Things opens, Simon Boulderstone a young officer who was befriended by Harriet and Guy Pringle after his brother’s death wakes up in a military hospital with a potentially devastating injury. We last saw Simon engaged in operations out in the desert, having faced dangerous combat situations, a bomb blast and the devastating loss of his older brother, Simon is initially elated to find himself alive. On a ward nicknamed, rather darkly ‘plegics’, Simon is made quite comfortable, and looks forward to re-joining his unit. It is a while before he is able to face up to the real nature of his injury and what it might mean.

“The wonder of his escape kept him, during those first days, in a state of euphoria. He wanted to talk to people, not to be shut away at the end of the ward. He asked for the curtains to be opened and when he looked down the long hutment, its walls bare in the harsh Egyptian sunlight, he was surprised to see men in wheel-chairs propelling themselves up and down the aisle. He pitied them, but for himself – he’d simply suffered a blow in the back.”

Simon is visited by Edwina, one of the residents of Dobson’s embassy flat where Guy and Harriet Pringle live too. Edwina was Simon’s brother’s girlfriend – though she is ambitious in her conquests, used to the approval of men, and getting what she wants. Simon is delighted with her visits and starts to imagine she could be a part of his future. Edwina however has other ideas, especially when she hears how bad his injury could be. Edwina enlists Guy’s help – and Guy becomes a frequent visitor – helping Simon on his long road to recovery and distracting himself from his own sadness.

Harriet meanwhile is in Damascus – where she tries hard to survive by herself – meeting colourful characters along the way, even taking on some secretarial work to try and boost her diminishing funds.

“She had left Egypt and was in another country. In Egypt the sun shone every day in a cloudless sky. Here the sky was blotted over with patches of cloud and the wind had an unfamiliar smell, the smell of rain. Because of the rain, grass was coming up, a thin shadow of green over the pinkish hills. In Egypt there had been rain only once during her time there: a freak storm that hit Cairo like a portent and turned the roads to rivers. Winter in Egypt was like a fine English summer but here it was really winter, wet and cold. Revived by the freshness of the air, she stood up, stretched her stiff muscles, then jumped down to the road. She had been ill but now she felt well, and free in a new world.”

Unknown to Harriet though, The Queen of Sparta on which she was booked to sail for England was torpedoed and sunk, with only three survivors. The loss of the vessel was widely reported in the newspapers that are taken by the ex-pats in Cairo. So, Guy and everyone else back in Cairo believes with good reason that Harriet is dead.

While Harriet remains in ignorance of the grief her death has unleashed – slowly recovering her health and having her own peculiar adventures – Guy has come to the wandering attention of Edwina.  

This was a great conclusion to both trilogies – and I was inevitably left feeling quite bereft, I shall really miss these characters. Olivia Manning writes so well, her characters are brilliantly drawn and her depiction of people living and working under the most extraordinary conditions is both compelling and realistic. Thankfully I do have a couple more Olivia Manning books tbr – I enjoy her writing so much.

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Well I have finished reading The Mandelbaum Gate by Muriel Spark my second book for the 1965 club, but as I am currently away, I don’t think I will get it reviewed before Sunday. So, I have taken a little look into the archives – and it does seem as if 1965 was a pretty good year all round.

A Dedicated Man by Elizabeth Taylor

Undoubtedly one of my favourite writers, this is one of four collections of stories published during her life time. As well as a gifted novelist, Taylor wrote extraordinarily good short stories too, and this collection is no exception.  In these stories Elizabeth Taylor considers the relationships between mothers and daughters, and husbands and wives, between neighbours and that terrifying creature the Englishman/woman abroad. She reveals small snobberies and the selfishness of the truly callous. Several years after reading them, I find some of these stories remain quite vividly in my mind. Taylor explores her characters with such precision that we understand them immediately – whether her characters are likeable or not – her cool observing eye is quite merciless.

The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme

I only read this Persephone book last year – a title I had continually overlooked in favour of others. Yet it proved to a rather lovely little book, which has some delightful illustrations. Written in the 1960s, The Carlyles at Home portrays the home life of writer and philosopher Thomas Carlyle and his wife Jane, during the thirty odd years they lived at Cheyne Row in Chelsea. Thea Holme; the author, wrote it while she and her husband were living in the house as custodians. She confines herself to everyday matters in the Carlyles lives, staying well away from the nature of the Carlyles marriage for example, Thomas Carlyle’s work is mentioned almost in passing. Small domestic concerns, problems with servants, home improvements and noise from neighbours. Each of the eleven chapters focus on a different aspect of the Carlyles lives at Cheyne Row.

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Sylvia Plath was someone I was fascinated by in my late teens. I bought this pretty little hardback edition so I could reread these poems a few years ago.

Ariel; published posthumously two years after Plath’s suicide – was her second collection of poetry – and it is deeply personal, often intimate, and frequently challenging. Her themes are those of marriage and motherhood, sexuality, depression, death and suicide. Plath’s poetry is lyrical and though often dark there is a strange luminosity to many of her images.

Friends and Heroes by Olivia Manning

Just the other day I forced my mother to buy the omnibus edition of The Balkan trilogy while browsing bookshelves in a charity shop – telling her it was so good I have read it twice. This is the third book in the Balkan trilogy – and this novel finds us in Greece – after the Pringles were forced with other ex-pats of their acquaintance to flee Bucharest. In Friends and Heroes, the peace that Guy and Harriet think they have found in Athens is destined to be short lived, and soon the war which is raging across Europe creeps ever close to their door. Again, Manning is superb at recreating the testing times in which she herself lived while abroad during the war. She writes so well.

Slaves of the Lamp by Pamela Frankau

Slaves of the Lamp is also part of a trilogy. It is the second book in Frankau’s Clothes of the King’s Son trilogy. The title; Slaves to the Lamp refers to those who take comfort in their belief in spiritualism, faith healing and other mysticisms. Faith healers and their followers form just one strand of this slightly unusual – though enjoyable – novel. In true Pamela Frankau style – the canvas here is large, set in both England and the South of France, Slaves to the Lamp follows the stories of several characters, which inevitably weave together. While this isn’t my favourite Frankau novel – it is enormously readable, and I have yet to read anything by her I haven’t enjoyed. The best thing about this novel is Thomas, such a lovable character.

A Little Love a Little Learning by Nina Bawden

I love Nina Bawden – regular readers will know that. A Little Love, A Little Learning was published more than ten years into Nina Bawden’s long publishing career – it is a great example of all she does well. She understands the dynamics and difficulties, and here she brings her knowledge of step-families to this revealing portrait, which shows just how fragile happiness can be. This is one of those novels where in a sense not a huge amount happens – and yet it remains very compelling, and perfectly told. I think Bawden is at her best when portraying middle-class families, especially children within those families.

Three more recommendations from 1965 – books I don’t have copies of it would seem.

Stoner by John Edwards Williams

Well everyone seemed to be reading this at one time. A novel which enjoyed a huge renaissance a few years ago. In my mind I categorise Williams with writers like William Maxwell – and of the two I prefer Maxwell. Stoner is a beautifully written, poignant novel, a novel about love and the disappointments dished out by life. Stoner – is the story of an unremarkable man – and yet he is a kind of hero. This is a story of love – but it is not a love story, but about the love William Stoner has for the women in his life, for literature and the university, and the great love he had for his job. Stoner’s life is just like that of most of us – we have our loves, disappointments sadnesses those daily routines that go unremarked for years and years. William Stoner enjoys some small quiet victories in his life, but after he is gone there remains little to prove that he ever lived.

A Backward Place by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala

I borrowed this book from Liz I think, and really loved it. I am reminded I haven’t read Prawer Jhabvala for ages – and there is plenty of her work I have never read. A Backward Place is a kind of comedy of manners centred on a group of westerners living alternative life-styles in Delhi. Judy an Englishwoman is married to Bal – living in a small house and courtyard with his family. Clarissa is a dishevelled artist, claiming to appreciate a simpler life, while Etta is an ageing Hungarian beauty determined to keep hold of her Parisian chic and mysterious allure. Dr and Mrs Hochstadt are a German couple on an extended though temporary visit to experience India.

The Red and the Green by Iris Murdoch

It’s eleven years since I read The Red and The Green so my memory of it is a bit shaky, so not linking to my review as it only amounts to a few sentences – though I do know I loved it. The setting is Dublin in 1916 as rebellion looms. An Anglo-Irish family provide all the main characters, the relationships between all these people are complex and frequently unorthodox.

Have you read any of these? What have you been reading for the #1965club?

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You may have noticed that I rather love books by twentieth century women writers, and so it was never going to be too long before I paid a visit to The Second Shelf in London. A delightful little shop in the heart of the capital selling my kinds of books.

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My friend Meg and I got the train to Euston, and from there it was a short tube ride to Leicester Square on the Northern Line, swapping to the Piccadilly Line for one stop, we got off at Piccadilly Circus and walked to the shop via Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street. Tucked away in Smiths Court is the Second Shelf – and it is a delight. The proprietor Allison Devers who has worked so hard to get this project off the ground was so warm and welcoming, and we had a lovely chat and were permitted to take photos – I did ask first of course.

There were so many books by the kinds of writers I love, I saw Daphne Du Maurier, Anita Brooker, Nina Bawden, Margaret Atwood, Virginia Woolf and many others. It is an Aladdin’s cave of women’s literature.

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Well I was always going to buy some books – and of course I did. Actually, one was purchased a few weeks ago, paid for and just picked up today. The other three – were just too hard to resist. I could have bought several others. I am so happy with these four books.

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A Game of Hide and Seek – by Elizabeth Taylor – one of my favourite writers, definitely one of my top five – and A Game of Hide and Seek is probably my favourite of her novels. I have a green virago edition too, which I am keeping – I have read it twice already, and as I am planning on re-reading some of the others this is just going on my special books, bookshelf for now. It isn’t a first edition, it’s the book club edition (book club editions are cheaper obviously) but I adore the cover. I can just imagine Harriet and Vesey going into that little house.

My mothers House and Sido by Colette – I have been reminded a couple of times lately how I really need to read more Colette – and this gorgeous little book shouted out to me. A 1953, American first edition.

The Unspeakable Skipton by Pamela Hansford Johnson, I have come to really enjoy PHJ’s writing. She was pretty prolific, and I have only read about four of her novels so far. This one just sounds so interesting, and I loved the cover. It is also a first edition.

The Rain Forest by Olivia Manning – many of you will have seen my love of Olivia Manning through my reading of The Balkan and Levant trilogies (the last one of those left to read) and others of her work. This, one of her later novels is a first edition.

I am completely delighted with my beautiful purchases.

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After this we went to a tiny deli next door and had a cup of tea – the food smelled amazing – but we had a table booked elsewhere where we were meeting three other friends. A lovely long lazy chatty lunch at Bill’s on Brewer Street was next on the agenda – which was rather busy and a bit chaotic at times, but the food was good, and it is great catching up with people I don’t see very often.

Before heading back to Euston Meg and I had some time to kill and so we went to the National Portrait Gallery, we spent about 45 minutes in there – and still managed to see quite a lot. The literary theme continued there with portraits of Iris Murdoch, Doris Lessing, Seamus Heaney and photographs of Edna O’Brien, Beryl Bainbridge and Nadine Gordimer among others.

A truly lovely day, with laughs and treats a plenty, I realise now, I really needed it!

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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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the danger tree

Today is the start of the 1977 club hosted for us again by Simon and Karen. I got started a few days ago – as I had been looking forward to reading this particular book for a while.

The Danger Tree is the first novel in Olivia Manning’s Levant Trilogy – which follows directly on from her Balkan Trilogy – that I re-read with such relish last year. The Danger Tree is every bit as compelling as those first three novels. Enormously intelligent, it is, at times, a no holds barred account of the war in the desert.

“Cairo had become the clearing house of Eastern Europe. Kings and princes, heads of state, their followers and hangers-on, free governments with all their officials, everyone who saw himself committed to the allied cause, had come to live here off the charity of the British government. Hotels, restaurants and cafés were loud with the squabbles, rivalries, scandals, exhibitions of importance and hurt feelings that occupied the refugees while they waited for the war to end and the old order to return.”

Having been forced to flee Greece – where they ended up having fled the German occupation in Romania – Guy and Harriet Pringle find themselves in Egypt. Again, they are surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of war – thrown together with strangers and old friends – and enemies – with German forces still far too close for comfort.

1977clubThe novel opens with Simon Boulderstone, just twenty years old, who has just arrived with the draft. A young officer, he had formed close alliances aboard ship – but is now separated from his mates – and finds himself alone, in the midst of chaos. Tobruk has just fallen. After reporting to his new barracks Simon is given two days leave and in search of a friendly face, goes to Cairo to look up his brother’s girlfriend; Edwina Little. Simon knows that somewhere out there in the desert is his brother Hugh and he hopes to get a chance to see him.

Harriet is also in Cairo – though Guy has had to go to Alexandria to find something to do for the Organisation – the Organisation is educational not mafioso which is what it always sounds like to me. Harriet is alone – and there are moments when the heat, flies, loneliness and constant rumour takes its toll.

“On one occasion she was in a landscape which she had seen years before, when riding her bicycle into the country. It was an ordinary English winter landscape; a large field ploughed into ridges that followed the contours of the land, bare hedges, distant elms behind which the sky’s watery grey was broken by gold. She could smell the earth on the wind. There was a gust of rain, wet and cold on her face – then, in an instant, the scene was gone like a light switched off, and she could have wept for the loss of it.”

Harriet encounters Simon in the company of some other ex-pats – when together they go off on a sight-seeing tour. The days end with a stark and tragic reminder of war at the desert home of Sir Desmond Hooper.

Guy is in a reserved occupation but his arrival in Egypt brings him back into conflict with those colleagues who had undermined his position in Greece. Finding himself on the outside again – Guy is not the man to sit back do nothing and get paid – he needs to be doing something. Guy always has a host of people around him – he puts everybody before Harriet – who finds herself every bit as frustrated by this behaviour in her husband as she was in Romania and Greece. While Harriet endures the discomfort of Madame Wilk’s pension, working in the American embassy, where she is daily reminded of her outsider status — Guy is running a course for just two students in Alexandria.

Returning to Cairo – to Harriet’s relief – Guy’s career prospects suddenly improve when he is appointed director. Guy’s appointment means the Pringles can move into better accommodation too – a large room in a shared embassy flat which they share with Edwina Little, a strange, rather sad man named Percy Gibbon and Dobson – who the Pringles first knew in Romania. Outside their window is a large mango tree – the danger tree of the title. Harriet loves the tree, Guy hates it.

“The Danger Tree”. You know that in England someone dies every year from eating duck eggs? – Well, in countries where a lot of mangoes are eaten, someone dies from mango poisoning every year.’ Edwina, who had been putting out her hand for another mango, withdrew it, saying, ‘Dobbie, how could you! What a horrid joke!’”

As the novel progresses we also follow the fortunes of young Simon Boulderstone as he joins his new unit. He is a young, inexperienced officer – and his days are long, hot and often boring. When action comes its swift, terrifying, and bloody. Olivia Manning brings us the realities of war with neither sentiment or gratuitous violence. As ever her storytelling is superb.

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I’ve really come to love Olivia Manning’s writing, and so I was delighted when I received The Doves of Venus as part of the Librarything Virago secret Santa parcel exchange. This accompanied me on the journey home from Devon almost two weeks ago now and proved to be one of the highlights of last month. Sometimes it is hard to write about a book I loved as much as I did this one, as I can’t really be objective. So, I should probably keep this simple.

Actually, the plot is very simple, but Olivia Manning brings so much to the story, her exploration of the characters is absolutely spot on. As always, her characters step fully formed from the page, they have a past and a future – and speak with the voices of people Olivia Manning herself must have known.

Eighteen-year old Ellie leaves her home in the provincial seaside town of Eastsea in search of independence. In Eastsea, Ellie’s mother runs a restaurant, and favours Ellie’s sister – who is about to get married. Ellie’s help is wanted – and everyone in the town seems to think it entirely appropriate that Ellie should stay and help her mother – and completely scandalous that she has gone off to London instead. Ellie is suffocated by the atmosphere of home; the small-town mind is not hers – she seems to be able to do nothing right anyway – and is always getting on the wrong side of her mother. Having done a night school art class at the technical college Ellie has her sights set on the art world.

In London, Ellie takes a small bedsit in Chelsea and manages to get a job at a furniture studio – initially in packing – but soon she is moved to the ‘antiquing’ room where she paints bits of furniture. She also acquires a middle-aged lover Quintin Bellot – who has a much more laid-back attitude to their affair than Ellie – who has fallen head over heels. The affair is destined to be a short one, with Ellie learning quickly, the complexities of a married lover.

“During her weeks with Quintin she had lived, it seemed like the ‘Snow Queen’ girl, in a garden where it was always summer. Now she was shut out from the summer garden of love.
‘My fault’ she said
All female gossip, all advice given in women’s magazines, made it clear that a woman thrown over had only herself to blame.”

Quintin is harried continually by his estranged wife – Petta; a familiar figure around the pubs on the Kings Road with her circle of assorted bohemians. When Petta leaves her most recent lover, she lands back at Quintin’s flat – much to his irritation – charming his housekeeper Mrs Trimmer and setting up home in his dressing room. Petta is manipulative and slightly hysterical, bitterly resentful toward all of Quintin’s ‘little girls’ – shrugging off her own indiscretions, a previous marriage and an abandoned daughter. She yearns sadly for a time that is long gone, a world she understood, the world as it had been when she was young.

“‘Why is it all so dismal now? What happened to life? What’s missing from it? It used to be such fun. It’s true, conditions were different. Money bought things then. Everyone had country cottages: they picked them up for a few pounds. Other people did the work for us – but it wasn’t all that that made life fun…’”

When Quintin tells Ellie, he won’t be able to see her anymore, she is devastated – but is determined to believe he will come back to her in time. In the meantime, Ellie concentrates hard on impressing with her work at the studio – and ignoring her mother’s attempts to get her to go home. Ellie is at the bottom of the rung at the studio – her tasks quite menial – she attempts to win the friendship of colleagues Denis and Bertie and when a new girl Nancy starts the two become firm friends.

Although she doesn’t see Quintin again for months – Ellie unknowingly spends time in a world not so far from Quintin. Nancy introduces Ellie to her uncle. Tom Claypole an old roué – who is also related to Quintin. Tom loves to surround himself with young girls, the doves of the title (nothing inappropriate occurs, Tom’s a gentleman). Ellie and Nancy spend several delightful weekends at Clopals – Tom’s country home. Nancy wants to put Tom’s mistress Maxine’s nose out of joint – and the two enjoy dancing attendance on the old man – who is a generous host. There is a wonderful exchange between Nancy and Tom about equal pay for men and women – an argument that rumbles on still.

“Recently she had spoken to Daze, the chief of staff, and had been told that there was one wage scale for men and another for women.
Tom nodded his approval: ‘Men need more money.’
‘They don’t need more’ said Nancy crossly, ‘they just get more, that’s all. Prices aren’t reduced for me because I’m a woman. You bet they’re not.’
‘Surely my dear girl, you’ve discovered by now that you’re living in a man’s world. You must try to gain things by your charms. We men are delighted to reward you, but we won’t disarm ourselves in your favour, Why should we? Eh?”

As the months pass, Quintin is never too far from Ellie’s thoughts – though the image of him fades a little – and she stops seeing him everywhere she goes. When they do meet again, he is no longer quite the romantic figure he was. Ellie has had to learn how to live in London on little money – and with few friends – she loses her job and is terrified to be in debt to her landlady. Ellie’s determination to remain independent sees her through – and by the time the novel ends she is a stronger, wiser young woman – who has found a new happiness for herself.

The Doves of Venus is a brilliant novel – which has reminded me I should get back to the Pringles and read The Levant Trilogy – having finished my re-read of The Balkan trilogy some months ago.

olivia-manning

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