Writer: Olivia Manning
Publishing House: Penguin Random House UK
Date of Publication: July 30th 2020 (first published 1960)
Rating: 4 stars
”A pine forest came down to the edge of the track: the light from the carriages rippled over the bordering trees. As she gazed out into the dark heart of the forest, she began to see small moving lights. For an instant a grey dogshape skirted the rail, then returned to darkness. The lights, she realised, were the eyes of beasts. She drew her head in and closed the window.”
A jolly squad of British expatriates is currently residing in Bucharest, each one for their own reasons. But there is a terrible shadow looming over their heads. The Second World War is about to begin in all its terrible rage, and the characters need to battle their personal struggles in a world that will soon be torn to pieces and change forever.
In the first instalment of her famous Balkan Trilogy, Olivia Manning writes with honesty, clarity and elegance about the way of thinking of the British citizens in a foreign country that stands on an extremely threatening crossroads. Some of them parade hopes, fears, insecurities and prejudices, almost oblivious to the fact that disaster is coming, paying no attention to the poverty around them and the persecution of the Jewish people that no one seems to care about.
The writer gives us an accurate and sensitive critique of the parties and the dinners and all kinds of ridiculous, empty celebrations, full of magnanimous words and petty whinings, while the conflict is raging and the poverty of the citizens of Bucharest is everywhere. Contaminating the very air they breathe, the Germans already treat everyone like subjects, demonstrating their disgusting expressions of victory, exploiting Romania’s fear for the Soviets that led to the wrong choices. The Nazi monsters have not invaded Romania yet but that doesn’t stop them from parading around like ‘’victors’’, turning my stomach page after page.
And where do our characters stand amidst this situation? Hard to say. Manning eloquently depicts the fact that each one of us is always locked up in a private microcosm that cannot be influenced even by the worst affliction. War or no war, marital problems, financial insecurities, personal ambitions will always come first. Especially when you are somewhat affluent and you are in no danger to find yourself in a concentration camp…And, frankly, this is understandable. Manning doesn’t pass judgment. She observes and pin-points the bleak image of her characters but never becomes cruel.
But I am a reader and I can pass judgement and become cruel and cynical. And pragmatic. And I declare Guy as one of the most irritating, unlikable characters I’ve ever encountered in a novel. For the life of me, I can’t see why any woman would fall in love with him unless there were other reasons. He is terrible. He makes Harriett look utterly stupid and Lord knows why she puts up with his behaviour. Clarence, with his frequent use of the word ‘’bitch’’, is no less problematic even if he is an interesting, enticing character. Harriet tries. She tries hard. And despite her occasional moments of rebellion, she is too meek and docile for my liking. Yakimov is almost a tragic figure at times, and then becomes the unwanted guest, an almost pathetic comic relief. In short, the novel seems to lack an interesting cast of characters, judging by the first volume of the trilogy.
‘’But I don’t imagine I exist to enhance your sense of superiority. I exist to satisfy my own demands on myself, and they are higher than yours are likely to be. If you don’t like me as I am, I don’t care.’’
Many thanks to Penguin Random House UK and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.