In the summer of 1974, the author Olivia Manning reread the transcript of a BBC radio talk she had given eleven years earlier about her arrival in Cairo in 1941 with her husband, Reggie Smith. Although she was not well, it inspired her to follow her Balkan trilogy (see SF no. 63), detailing the wartime experiences of Harriet and Guy Pringle in Bucharest and Athens, with a second sequence set in Egypt and the Middle East. The task took five years and by the time it was finished Manning had only months to live. She died in July 1980, aged 72.
She made no secret of the fact that the Balkan trilogy was strongly autobiographical, both in its dissection of an English community living under the threat of German invasion and its depiction of a marriage under strain. Like Manning, Harriet is newly married to a man whose gregarious spirit leads him to embrace others, to her emotional exclusion. By the close of the first sequence, however, she acknowledges that the perils of war have forced them to a mutual understanding and that the only certainty left to them is to stay together.
The Levant trilogy is no less a seamless fusion of historical fact and imaginative fiction. It is June 1942 and the Pringles have fled Romania and Greece one step ahead of the Nazis. Now, settled in Cairo, they are again under threat as Rommel’s Afrika Corps drives remorselessly east following its successes in Libya. These are catastrophic times. Tobruk has fallen, the British are in retreat, abandoning weaponry and tanks, and it is rumoured Cairo is to be evacuated. Determined to evoke not just the fears of civilians on the periphery of fighting but also the horror of combat itself, Manning introduces in the opening book, The Danger Tree, a gauche young officer, Simon Boulderstone, through whose eyes we witness the ultimately successful El Alamein campaign.
Manning could write from experience about the hardships of living in wartime Bucharest and Athens, but she
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