The Sum of Things – Olivia Manning
This is the final book of the so-called Levant Trilogy and was published posthumously in 1980 as Manning had rather inconveniently died. This probably explains the rather loose and rather unsatisfactory ending.
The book picks up the stories of Harriet and Guy Pringle and the young army officer, Simon Boulderstone, where they were left at the end of The Battle Lost and Won. Harriet decided at the last minute not to board the evacuation ship bound for England that Guy had wanted her to take. It was a good job, too, as it was torpedoed. Instead she joined a couple of women friends, in all senses if you read between the lines, and travels to Damascus. She doesn’t tell Guy of her change of plan, feeling the need to get away from their dying relationship. Guy assumes she is on the ship and assuming that she has died, has to come to terms with his loss.
He does this by taking on as a project bucking up Simon Boulderstone who was seriously injured at the end of the last book and is languishing in the Plegics ward. Simon recovers sufficiently to get back to duty but is frustrated that the severity of his injuries means that he cannot pursue death or glory on the front line. Harriet’s absence and presumed death encourages her friends to criticise Guy for his treatment of her, barbs which clearly hurt as he reacts rather defensively to them.
Harriet’s travels around the Middle East are entertaining, not least the description of the religious ceremony in Jerusalem. But there she meets the only survivor of the evacuation ship, the coincidences are astonishing and truly Anthony Powellite in the way enable the plot to move on, and realises that Guy must think her dead. Despite her disillusionment with her marriage, Harriet decides to return to Cairo to be reunited with him. Tellingly, although Guy is overcome with emotion when he sees Harriet alive, he still goes out that evening, missing the celebratory dinner, to give a lecture to his students on self-determination.
Unlike the Balkan Trilogy and the first two volumes of this trilogy, the Pringles are no longer in imminent danger of invasion and being forced to flee from the enemy. The tide of the war has turned, the North African campaign won, and the Allies are now pursuing their foes through Italy. There is a sense that the war and events have left the motley collection of British ex-pats, some of those we have met earlier pop up from time to time like Adrian Pratt, Bill Castlebar, Lady Angela Hooper, Dobson, and Edwina, rather high and dry, leaving them to reconcile themselves to their redefined lot in life.
For the Pringles this means continuing their unsatisfactory and disappointing marriage which, as Harriet notes, “in an imperfect world, was making do with what one had chosen”. Castlebar dies of typhoid, leaving his estranged wife and mistress, Angela, to fight over the body, the latter eventually settling for the role of a carer. Pratt commits suicide, again a victim of Guy’s lack of human empathy and Simon, as well as losing his military ambitions, also allows his intense feeling of grief for his brother, hero and role model, Hugo, die “like a face disappearing under water”.
Despite Guy being an insufferable prig and Harriet being a fool for putting up with him, the reader is left with a desire to find out what became of them. That is why the coda is disappointing and Manning’s death a tragedy. Still, I enjoyed the trilogy, entertaining and well-paced making it a fairly undemanding read. If you are looking for something to get your teeth into on your hols, you could do worse.