If there’s one thing I am, it’s definitely a contrary reader! Having given myself limited challenges for the year, and set up some loose ideas of what I want to read, I’ve gone completely in another direction!! I read the first two volumes in the Balkan Trilogy, “The Great Fortune” and “The Spoilt City” last year; the first book I struggled with a little because I didn’t like Guy and Harriet Pringle very much; the second book reconciled me to them a little, and then Manning’s writing is so strong, and her sense of place so vivid that I *was* won over. And of course, there was the wonderful Yakimov who quite made the books worth reading!

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So after the immense experience of “Spring Tide” I felt a little like I needed something familiar, and decided now was a good time to read the final volume in the trilogy, “Friends and Heroes”. At the end of TSC, Harriet had fled war-torn Bucharest for Athens, where she was waiting anxiously for Guy to arrive, with only Yakimov for company. “F&H” opens at that same point, and soon Guy is safely in Athens too. However, things are never going to be straightforward with this couple and the first section of the book, entitled “The Antagonists”, deals with continual power struggles within the British community in Athens. Some old faces turn up again – Toby Lush and Dubedat, who have used and betrayed Guy in the past, and Professor Pinkrose – but there are also new problems, in the form of two factions aligned around Gracey, the ostensible head of the organisation, and Mrs. Brett, whose late husband used to be in charge. Guy is far too straightforward to do any wangling for position, and Harriet again experiences considerable frustration trying to get him to engage with the other characters’ real personalities. They make a friend of Alan Frewen, a gentle lover of Greece, and his dog Diocletian – Yakimov is working for Alan circulating newsletters and turns out to be one of Harriet’s staunchest supporters.

“The light had almost faded. In the spectral glimmer of late dusk, Gracey’s desiccated youth looked deadly while Pinkrose’s cheeks were as grey and withered as lizard skin. Seeing Pinkrose glaring like a wraith in the gloom of hell, Gracey pulled himself together…”

However, there is soon a turnaround and Guy is appointed director of education – which does not last long because of all the war rumblings in the distance. As he cannot teach, he throws himself into another production, this time a kind of review show for the troops – and the biggest success turns out to be Yakimov in the title role of “Maria Marten”!

Because of Guy’s stupidity and abandonment of Harriet to blindly forge ahead with the production, as well as spending all of his spare time with a fellow left-winger, Ben Phipps, it is inevitable that they should continue to drift apart and that Harriet should enter into a flirtation with another man, Charles Warden, which takes up most of part three of the book, “The Romantics”. It seems that the relationship will never be fully consummated, but when it suddenly reaches a point that it might, a sudden reappearance of a lost character from the past stops all that. Charles storms off and that is the end of that.

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The final section is entitled “The Funeral”. A mysterious gentleman called Tandy turns up, and Yakimov becomes devoted to him. The Germans declare war on Greece and society starts to disintegrate fast. As the troops become closer, it seems the Pringles and their friends will have to flee again – but who will escape? And whose is the funeral?

Well, I found myself totally absorbed once again, despite finding Guy insufferable! I’ve come to terms with Harriet – I can understand her frustrations at dealing with her husband, a stranger when she married him and pretty much a stranger still. The core of the story is still these two mismatched people, but what a wonderful supporting cast there always is. Yakimov is as wonderful as ever; new character Alan Frewen is very moving; the squabbling Brits are excellently portrayed, from the greedy, snobbish Major Cookson to the left-wing Phipps and all shades of behaviour inbetween. Manning’s writing is as strong as ever, with her evocations of the landscape and the people within it unforgettable. It’s striking and also surprising how much the past haunts the Pringles – they cannot get away from many of the people they have known while adrift in Europe (Dobson, Lush, Dubedat) and those they can’t find they’re still searching for – Guy spends an inordinate amount of time visiting the railway station to see if his friend David has arrived.

Yes – I suppose we must consider Guy, as he is of course a pivotal point of these books! I know I’m not the only one who finds him irritating as a character, and much of this is because he is simply incapable of recognising or responding to Harriet’s needs; so it is not surprisingly that she should fall in love with Charles Warden. When someone finally points this out to Guy (and I’m convinced somebody had to, for he would never have worked it out on his own!) his response is pathetic – he tries to counteract this by forcing her to spend time with him and his left-wing companion, Ben Phipps. Harriet and Phipps patently loathe each other and it’s a measure of Guy’s total lack of people skills that he can’t understand or recognise this. He is a man of remarkable accomplishments when dealing with people en masse, or when he’s trying to get them to do something which he wants, but when it comes to sensitivity or understanding for an individual’s frailties or needs, he is totally without. Yakimov at one point makes a critical remark about Guy having ‘dropped’ him, and although Harriet is initially indignant (as they had sheltered Yaki for so long), when she reflects she realises this is true – Guy gave all his attention to Yaki when he wanted to get a good performance for the play out of him, but once he had served his purpose he was simply no use to Guy.

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Harriet’s other frustration is his inability to judge people – he trusts people he shouldn’t, dislikes people for all the wrong reasons (Alan Frewen being a case in point) and seems incapable of attempting to do anything to improve his lot, simply hoping that all will come right in the end. This marriage is a very shaky one, and I often found myself wondering how and why the Pringles had managed to stick it out. At one point, as the world disintegrates around them and they prepare to flee, Harriet exclaims that her lost cat is all she has.

“His cry of surprise stopped her in her tracks. She saw no justification for his protest. He had chosen to put other people before her and this was the result. Each time he had overridden her feelings to indulge some sense of liability towards strangers, a thread had broken between then. She did not feel there was anything left that might hold them together.”

However, Harriet finds it is not so simple, and despite all that has happened she is still tied emotionally to Guy in ways she had not foreseen or recognised.

But let’s talk about Yakimov! He’s definitely my favourite character in the whole series of books, and here he again features strongly. He’s a support for Harriet in her early days, and stays a friend, so much so that she wonders how she can ever have disliked him. He finds himself a little job so he is in funds and manages somehow to not only survive, but once again become the star of Guy’s performance:

“Maria, played by Yakimov, was met with unbelieving silence. Wearing false eyelashes, a blond wig, a print dress and sunbonnet, he looked like a wolf disguised as Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, but a wolf imitating outrageous, salacious girlhood. When he tripped to the footlights, put forefinger to chin and curtsied, a howl rose from the back of the hangar.”

The visions that description conjures up are amazing! Despite his selfishness, his silliness and his daft stories, he’s a wonderfully loveable character and although I guessed his eventual fate it was no less moving for that. And what stunned me even more was the fact that when I looked him up online, Wikipedia informed me:

“Olivia Manning has said that the scrounging Prince Yakimov is based in the Fitzrovian novelist Julian MacLaren-Ross. (Both are distinguished by an unusual overcoat in which they are always dressed).”

Even more synchronicity – I really *must* read MacLaren-Ross!

But the book is shot through with a sense of loss, much of which is Harriet’s – Sasha, her little cat, and even Guy, who seems to slip away from her constantly. They also lose friends such as Clarence and Charles, and there is also David Boyd, who doesn’t reappear despite Guy’s desperate searching for him. The memory of Sasha is a painful constant through the book:

“If one could not bear the memory of the dead, then they must be shut out of memory. There was no other action anyone could take against the bafflement of grief.”

Yet his character provides one of the most shocking revelations of the story!

This really is a wonderful book, and a fitting way to wind up the first trilogy about the Pringles. Manning brilliantly captures the desperate uncertainty of life, the hardships and the lack of food suffered without making this a miserable book – Harriet has flashes of joy, there are jokes and laughter, all the usual ups and downs of life but against the backdrop of impending invasion. Despite my dislike of one of the main players, I’ve loved reading the Balkan Trilogy and I know I will progress to the Levant Trilogy in the fullness of time, if for no other reason than to find out what happens to Guy, Harriet and all their friends!

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