The three books which make up The Levant Trilogy are “The Danger Tree,” “The Battle Lost and Won,” and “The Sum of Things.” These novels follow on from Oliva Manning’s, “The Balkan Trilogy,” in which we first met young married couple, Guy and Harriet Pringle. .” In the Balkan novels, we followed newlyweds, Guy and Harriet Pringle, as they embarked on married life in Budapest – later moving to Greece. “The Danger Tree” sees many of these characters reappear, such as Pinkrose, Dubebat, Lush and Dobson. There are also new characters, such as the young officer, Simon Boulderstone, who has been separated from his unit, and the beautiful Edwina.
“The Danger Tree,” sees the Pringles now in Egypt; having fled Greece at the end of the “Balkan Trilogy,” As before, the move has not seen them any more settled – there are constant rumours of the planned evacuation of Cairo and the city seems to have become the, “clearing house of Eastern Europe.” Guy, so trusting and naïve, is hurt when Gracey appears to have no use for him in the organisation and finds himself shunted off to Alexandria, where Harriet worries he will be cut off by the approaching Germans. Unwilling to accept he is not wanted by Gracey, and always giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, Guy attempts to bury himself in work.
As always, Harriet is in the unenviable position of seeing Guy always admired, and used, by his many friends; while he gives his attentions to his students, his friends and his acquaintances, but never to her. She feels ill-used, neglected and at a loss of how to help, making excuses for her husband, while the war continues to cause chaos around her. Simon Boulderstone is a good new character, whose attempts to find his unit, his struggles with the life of the army, and the sheer confusion of war, open up a new vista to these books, in showing us the men who are fighting, as well as the civilians who are coping with the encroaching war.
The second in the trilogy, “The Battle Lost and Won,” follows seamlessly on from, “The Danger Tree,” and begins with Simon Boulderstone arriveng in Cairo on leave. Simon had been under the belief that his brother, Hugo’s, girl was Edwina, who has a room in Dobson’s apartment, as do the Pringles and Lady Angela Hooper. Edwina though, is a frivolous girl, currently obsessed with a titled beau, called Peter, and the minor embarrassment caused over Simon’s uncomfortable arrival, results in his later being promoted to a liaison officer.
As in the other novels though, it is Harriet Pringle who remains centre stage in the story. She watches Edwina’s doomed pursuit of Peter and Angela’s odd obsession with the drunken Castlebar, both married men, with concern. As always, Guy is obsessed with work – he has now also been promoted and relishes his new responsibility to run the organisation. Giving lectures, finding teachers, organising entertainment for the troops. He pays little attention to Harriet and treats her as though she is little more than a nuisance. When she becomes ill, and Guy takes a gift Angela has given her to pass on to Edwina, Harriet decides to return to England.
With all these books, Olivia Manning tells the story of war from the personal level. We are aware of rising Egyptian nationalism, of the tide of war turning as Rommel retreats, of how locals sneer at the English before the war turns in their favour, but this is cleverly done. Manning is not as interested in the main theatre of war – she is in the dressing room with the actors, who hear everything in whispers and snippets and rumours. As such, shocking events – such as an assassination – take on an air of farce.
“The Sum of Things,” is the third in The Levantine Trilogy. In this concluding volume, Harriet heads for Damascus, having failed to board the ship to England that Guy wanted her to take. Unbeknownst to her, the ship was torpedoed and there are only a handful of survivors. Meanwhile, Harriet has no idea that Guy imagines she is dead.
Many of the characters in earlier books also appear here, including the frivolous Edwina, Dobson, Angela Hooper, Castlebar, Aidan Pratt and the young officer, Simon Boulderstone, who was injured at the end of the last book. Guy finds his comfortable existence interrupted by news of Harriet’s death and is injured at any criticism of how he treated her. While Edwina attempts to use Harriet’s absence to integrate himself, Guy attempts to “take on” Simon.
This book follows both Harriet’s journey and her encounters, as she travels from Damascus and eventually to Jerusalem, and Guy’s continued life in Cairo. Eventually, the two are reunited and the novel end with how the war has changed all of the characters. This is a moving, but realistic, conclusion to the war of Guy and Harriet Pringle and the cast of supporting characters. The war has made many grow more mature, has made others attempt to use the time they have to advance themselves and has brought others death, changed circumstances and different opportunities. I enjoyed this book very much and, indeed, the entire six volumes. Harriet Pringle is certainly one of the fictional characters that will stay with me and I found her journey fascinating. Overall, I think I preferred “The Balkan Trilogy,” to this series, but both are expertly written and well realised accounts of a young couple coping not only with married life in insecure times, but with a war which chases them continually from one precarious existence to another. These are books I return to every few years and, each time, find more to enjoy