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Customer Review

33 of 35 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars British expats caught in the opening of WWII, May 29, 2010
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This review is from: Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy (New York Review Books Classics) (Paperback)
The British author of "Fortunes of War", Olivia Manning, produced this massive saga (three separate books) after living through the opening of WWII in Romania, where her husband was teaching English literature for the British Council; and later as the two became refugees in Greece.. The autobiographic novel impressively evokes the expectant and eventually, paranoid, living environment as the Nazis were gradually closing in politically and militarily on the states of the Balkans. Manning's story succeeds best when it describes the environment of the times and places that are its context. It is less successful when it looks (seemingly endlessly, at times) at the state of the marriage of the book's two principal characters, Harriet and Guy Pringle. Whether the author is being self-critical or making a comment about the nature of the British character in general, she gives the reader little reason to feel sympathy for many of the long parade of characters that inhabit the three sections of this novel. She apparently witnessed little human nobility in her own WW II adventures, but must have seen plenty of self-absorption, venality and petty jealously. In any event, there is no scarcity of these sins in "Fortunes..."

There are some wonderful observations about war and humans under stress to be found here. Pondering her status as a refugee in Greece--a place that she is quite taken with, but cannot really enjoy--Harriet Pringle concludes that "War meant a perpetual postponement of life..." It also means continual hunger and fear. Manning documents these realities brilliantly throughout the story.

Overall, this weighty tale is worth taking on because of its evocation of the period's realities. The less than stellar personal qualities and behavior of the book's characters must be endured to enjoy the better parts. There is one possible exception in the person of Prince Yakimov, a Russian-Irish Brit, who is an inveterate mooch, but also instinctive survivor. The self-pitying Yakimov brings both humor and pathos thats keeps the saga from becoming too leaden and otherwise completely unsympathetic, at strategic moments.

This isn't a book for everyone. But if you are tolerant of having to mine for small flecks of gold and occasional nuggets, it's worth the effort.
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Showing 1-3 of 3 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Jan 14, 2011 5:02:16 AM PST
I greatly admire the balance of your review, and wholeheartedly agree that the books' strength lies in their observation of people and countries on the fringe of war. Unlike you, though, I quickly got bored with "your old Yaki," although his appearances in the third volume were a lot more satisfying. And I felt that when Harriet stopped musing on the nature of her marriage and began to flirt with the possibility of an affair (also in the third volume), the plot was for the first time driven by internal psychology rather than external circumstance.

In reply to an earlier post on Jan 14, 2011 5:10:29 PM PST
Last edited by the author on Jan 14, 2011 5:10:44 PM PST
RB - Thanks for the kind word. I liked your more in depth review of the book(s) very much. As for Yaki -- well, he is single-minded where everyone else often seems unable to focus. Something admirable about that even though he would be someone that any sane person would avoid like the plague in real life.
I wonder if how the movie captured the characters and mood of the story. I haven't seen it, have you?

Posted on Jan 14, 2011 7:05:11 PM PST
Not really. I saw the first part at the time, and found myself so put off by Branagh and Thompson that it took me a long while to realize what fine actors they are. I am not sure that I would hold up Yaki as the paragon of focus, but I do agree that lack of focus generally is the besetting fault of the book.
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