The Spoilt city
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Many of the characters in the first book also appear here. Yakimov, always on his uppers and installed in the Pringle’s spare room, is disgruntled and depressed. When Guy and Harriet come across Sasha Drucker; the son of a wealthy Jewish businessman whose ruin is the talk of the city, the pair take him in too. Sasha has deserted from the army and Harriet is concerned that Yakimov will inform someone if he knows, so he has to stay in hiding. She is right to worry – Yakimov is concerned solely with his own well-being and is the least discreet person imaginable. When he goes to visit Cluj, he is so out of touch with events, that he imagines he can visit his old friend Fredi von Flugel; now a Nazi. His bravado and bragging may well have unpleasant repercussions for the very people who took him in when he had nowhere else to turn.
Meanwhile, revolution is in the air. As Bucharest experiences upheaval, martial law and shortages, the British await the arrival of Professor Pinkrose; invited by Guy’s boss, Inchcape, to – almost unbelievably - give a lecture. Harriet begins to despair that neither Guy, nor Inchcape, are prepared to accept the danger they could be in and have their heads firmly in the sand about current events. Bucharest now has a strong German presence, the Blitz has begun back home and getting to safety may soon be impossible. You really do feel for Harriet in this book – Guy is always so concerned with everyone else that he barely has time to consider how Harriet feels and she remains isolated and worried. Before the end of this volume, she has some difficult decisions to make about the future. The third book in the trilogy is “Friends and Heroes,” and I look forward to reading on to find out what happens to Harriet.
If you have read The Great Fortune, all you really need to know is that this one continues the story in a very similar style and maintains the quality throughout. The following comments apply to the whole trilogy.
It paints a portrait of the extraordinary life of the little expat community that is so realistic I knew without looking it up that it is largely autobiographical. The descriptions of the skies are beautifully written and I imagine that the author actually jotted down then down in a notebook.
A great deal of the book comprises people speculating about the political situation and either worrying about what to do if matters deteriorated or, more often, denying the risks. I found this interesting but I can imagine some people might complain that the English had nothing to do but sit around drinking in bars indulging in pointless ill-informed gossip.
The story is of course full of political upheaval and violence but somehow it unfolds without drama, without any feel of excitement or fear such as might be expected. Instead it concentrates on the personalities, their foibles, and their relationships, particularly the complex marriage between the two main characters. It is literally more like reading Jane Austen than a wartime story. This, along with the poetic language is in my view the real strength of the novel. The little personal conflicts and crises are sensitively told and poignant.
However, the absence of drama makes the whole work almost shapeless. There is a conclusion of sorts but no real climax and it felt incomplete - even at the end of the third novel. I had to go online to check whether there was a continuation and was delighted to find there are three more (The Levant Trilogy)
If you like audiobooks, I strongly recommend the audible version read by Harriet Walter. She is one of the very best readers.
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