Olivia Manning’s best known work, The Balkan Trilogy, juxtaposes world-changing events with the domestic concerns of the newly-married Guy and Harriet Pringle. She revisits that narrative device in The Danger Tree, the first novel in her Levant Trilogy.
This novel follows the fortunes of the Pringles together with a hotch-potch of refugees from a Europe under the control of Hitler’s forces.
In their new home in Cairo they are no more secure than they were in Europe. The German forces are advancing through Egypt, creating tension among the ex-pat community. Some choose to make their escape before the rumoured planned evacuation of Cairo. Others who cannot leave become increasingly worried. The Egyptians barely tolerate them and the Americans are more concerned with saving themselves than anyone else.
Nevertheless nothing, not even the threat of capture will deter this odd assortment of characters (many of whom are egocentric idlers) from their cocktails and parties or the occasional trip into the desert where they clamber into the burial chambers of the Pyramids. Anything to relieve the monotony and the daily battle with stultifying heat.
Into this melting pot comes a fresh-faced British officer, Simon Boulderstone. He’s clearly an innocent abroad, a young man who is a loner desperate to make friends. Those he made on the ship bringing in reinforcements seem to have disappeared, leaving Simon feeling adrift on his arrival in Cairo.
Waiting for a taxi, he breathed in the spicy, flaccid atmosphere of the city and felt the strangeness of things around him. The street lamps were painted blue. Figures in white robes, like night-shirts, flickered through the blue gloom, slippers flapping from heels. The women, bundled in black, were scarcely visible. The district looked seedy and was probably dirty but the barracks, he thought, would be familiar territory. He hoped Major Perry would be there to welcome him.
It’s through the eyes of this naive young officer that we see the disarray of the Allied war effort. Put in charge of part of a convoy to take vital supplies to the battle lines, he has no real idea how to conduct himself or the men under his command. Everything that was familiar has already disappeared and as the trucks drive mile after mile through a landscape rendered featureless by sandstorms, his feeling of unreality continues. Even when, after long stretches of inactivity, he is suddenly confronted with the brutal realities of war, he acts as if he is in a trance. Manning skillfully deals with this in a matter of fact style, the very lack of sentimentality only serving to reinforce the grim nature of the experience.
Back in Cairo, Harriet is similarly dislocated. Guy takes himself off to Alexandria ostensibly for his work with some nebulous educational entity called the Organisation. While he’s occupying his time dreaming up lectures and cultural activities, she is left alone, feeling under-used in her own job and neglected by Guy.
What an obnoxious figure of a man Manning has created in Guy. He’s very much an absent husband who “loves everyone,” not just his wife. He’s never happier than when surrounded by friends and cooking up schemes for a play or some musical event. While Harriet has to endure the discomfort of a room in a pension, and her job in the American embassy where she is left in no doubt about her outsider status — he’s swanning about in Alexandria. Harriet begs him to leave Alexandria when the situation gets more fraught, but Guy decides that a course he’s running for just two students (who might not turn up anyway) is more important. Understandably Harriet feels isolated, confused and fearful for her marriage, especially when she begins to suspect his affections lie elsewhere. Guy of course is oblivious to the reasons for her distress.
He found it difficult to accept that his own behaviour could be at fault. And if it were, he did not see how it could be changed. It was as it always had been, rational, so if she were troubled, then some agency beyond them – sickness the summer heat the distance from England – must be affecting her. …. That she was unhappy concerned him yet would could hero about it. he had more than enough to do as it was…..
Harriet has far more patience with this self-centred insensitive man than I would have but whether they go their separate ways we never get to discover because the book ends without a resolution. It’s an unsatisfying end because young Simon’s future is also left uncertain. If it wasn’t for the fact I knew there were two more books to follow I would have got to the end of The Danger Tree feeling very short changed.
I hadn’t planned to read the whole trilogy but I was so taken with Manning’s skill in evoking the atmosphere of Egypt at this time in World War II that I now have to get my hands on the next title in the series.
The Danger Tree by Olivia Manning: Endnotes
Olivia Manning was an English novelist and short story writer whose life bore a number of similiarities with that of her character Harriet Pringle. Olivia married just weeks before the invasion of Poland triggered the Second World War. Her husband’s job as a lecturer for the British Council in Bucharest took them to Eastern Europe, but they had to flee, first to Athens, then to Cairo. Given that experience it’s not surprising that she can write so convincingly about the sensation of feeling dislocated and uprooted.
Manning began writing The Danger Tree in 1975. For a time she described it “The Fourth Part of the Balkan Trilogy”. A biography Olivia Manning: A Life, by Neville Braybrooke, indicates she found it a struggle to write apparently because she wasn’t confident of her ability to imagine the world of the soldier in a military campaign. Despite some early criticism that the desert scenes were lacklustre, The Danger Tree was well receive on publication in 1977.
Why I read this book
This was my one and only contribution to the 1977readingclub #1977club hosted by Karen at Kaggsy’sbookishramblings and Simon at StuckinaBook. I’m also counting it towards my Year of my Life reading project.