Born at the beginning of the 20th century, Olivia Manning was hailed as one of the greatest writers of her generation by some critics during her lifetime, her epic Balkan Trilogy, a fictionalised account of her years in Bucharest, Athens and Cairo putting her firmly in the literary spotlight. But her name has dimmed over the years and, compared to some of her contemporaries like Anthony Burgess and Iris Murdoch, she’s relatively obscure outside of bookish circles.
Manning’s world is certainly a very old fashioned one, and not in a pip-pip-huzzah Nancy Mitford or P.G. Wodehouse way. Her novels are steeped in unease, class and racial unease and violent clashes, like Evelyn Waugh with an extra twist of bitterness.
The Rain Forest is no exception. It’s a restless, nasty novel that begins innocuously enough before descending into a tale of territorial and racial tension that could be set in our own troubled times. The novel crawls with mean-spirited, back-stabbing, shadowy characters, their real motivations deliberately obscured by Manning, the layers of greed and madness hidden by serpent-like charm.
The novel is told through the eyes of a young married couple, Kristy and Hugh Foster, new arrivals on Al-Bustan, an island in the Indian Ocean. Lying just off the coast of Africa, this richly green island framed by pristine beaches should be paradise, but the melting pot of Arabs, Indians, Africans and the British is simmering to boiling point.
Hugh is a former script writer whose work has dried up, and Kristy a successful novel. Their world is glittery star-studded Mayfair clubs and they are at sea amongst the relics of the British Empire when they arrive on Al-Bustan after Hugh takes up a government office job in this steamy British colony to pay off the inland revenue. They are a brittle, cool pair, their marriage so stale that they constantly bristle against each other and wish each back in Britain.
Al-Bustan’s beauty hides turmoil. On the cusp independence, tensions are running high, not least in the dining room of the British-only pension, the Daisy, where Kristy and Hugh find themselves marooned in a sea of class-obsessed last-days-of-Empire types. Despite being outcasts baffled by the world they’ve entered, Kristy and Hugh soon find themselves caught in Al Bustan’s vicious net, desperate to leave, but unable to.
For a large part of the novel the plot drifts as languidly as the ladies-who-lunch on this hot, humid island. But Manning cranks up the plot in the final fifth of the novel as the violence and cruelty that had been bubbling under the surface explodes in ways the preceding calmness of the novel never hinted at.
On the strength of this odd, savage little novel, Olivia Manning’s novels deserve to be given the same recognition as her contemporaries. Like so many of the best authors (notably Burgess) The Rain Forest isn’t a comfortable read; it seethes with resentments and anger that aren’t, unfortunately, as old-fashioned as the cocktails-at-six world Manning sets it in.
by Suzanne Elliott