Having already read The Balkan Trilogy, I was eager to read The Levant Trilogy, the last three books of Olivia Mannings’ massive World War II opus, Fortunes of War. It did not disappoint me. Like the first, this second trilogy is as much about the Harriet and Guy Pringle’s marriage as it is about the War. In fact, the war is more distant in these three books, even when Rommel’s army is just fifty miles away.
The first two books in the trilogy, The Danger Tree and The Battle Lost and Won, take place in Cairo where the Pringles fled after the fall of Greece. As in The Balkan Trilogy, there is another character who carries part of the weight of the story. This time its Simon Boulderstone. He is far less interesting than Prince Yakimov whose death in Greece was senseless and perfect for being so senseless. Simon, though, is nothing like Yakimov. He’s maturing, growing from youth to maturity. He is the anti-Yakimov, suffering from a highly developed sense of responsibility, not fecklessness.
Guy is still Guy, gregarious and popular, spreading himself too thin and ultimately, selfish in his disregard for his wife Harriet. Harriet, though, is changing, coming into her own, finding her own friends, exploring Cairo on her own. At the end of the second book, she’s done with Guy’s disregard and decides to go back to England on a special evacuation ship. At the last minute, she goes with some Wrens to Syria, purely on impulse, not really sure what she plans to do.
This brings us to the last book, The Sum of Things, where she is exploring Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine while Guy is back in Cairo, believing her dead along with all the others who died on that transport ship. For the first time, Guy’s friends point out that he was a neglectful, selfish husband. He begins to see things through her eyes. The incident from the second book that provoked Harriet’s decision to leave is revisited twice in this final book, by both Guy and Harriet. She had been given a brooch with rose diamonds by her friend Angela, a valuable gift she loved. Guy took it from her to give to another woman, not for romantic reasons, but because he though it an appropriate addition to her costume for a show he was producing. Seeing it on that woman, now that Harriet is dead, he demanded its return. Harriet also retold that story, to the woman who first gave the brooch to her, an example of Guy’s disregard for her feelings.
The Levant Trilogy is fascinating. It gives us a very revealing and deep look at a world that is long gone in Cairo, Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine. Harriet is an acute observer of people and interested in the people, places and history. She explores. She is also growing into a more self-confident and independent woman. Manning died that year the last of the three books in this trilogy was published. Many assume a third trilogy that would cover the last two years of the war was planned. That makes sense as the end seems incomplete.
However, it’s still satisfying. I was happy to see Harriet leave Gus. She was offered options. Other men are drawn to her and she had chances, in Romania, in Greece, in Syria, in Lebanon…but she realizes, it seems, that there is freedom in Gus’s self-absorbed disregard. And now she has a taste for freedom.
- The Levant Trilogy at New York Review of Books
- Fortunes of War: a review of the entire six book series
- Olivia Manning