It’s the spring of 1941 and the German army’s eastward march appears unstoppable. In the Egyptian desert, the young officer Simon Boulderstone, twenty years old and wet behind the ears, waits in dreadful anticipation of his first experience of combat. The people of Cairo are waiting, too. In crowded apartments, refugees from Europe wait; in palm-shaded mansions, Anglo-Egyptians wait. At night they are joined in the city’s bars and cabarets by soldiers on leave, looking for a last dance before going off to the front lines.
Into this mix enter Guy and Harriet Pringle, whose story began in Olivia Manning’s magisterial Balkan Trilogy. They have successfully escaped Nazi-occupied Greece but are dogged by uncertainties about their marriage. And, as Simon discovers that the realities of war are both more prosaic and more terrible than he had imagined, Harriet is forced to confront her precarious health and her place beside her husband.
The finest fictional record of the war produced by a British writer.
A tour de force…a picture of the Middle East in wartime that we shall want to look at again and again.
Books not nearly as good are touted as definitive portraits of the war; very little on a best-seller list is more readable. Manning’s giant six-volume effort is one of those combinations of soap opera and literature that are so rare you’d think it would meet the conditions of two kinds of audiences: those after what the trade calls ‘a good read,’ and those who want something more…. The working out of the plot of Fortunes of War has something of the suspense of an adventure story heightened by the surfacing of forgotten fact—as if the reader were undergoing an analysis whose subject was history rather than subjective memory…. Manning, who avoids elevations of style as if an ascent were a bog, also evades sentimentality, and although she can handle atmosphere, her main interests are those two staples of realistic fiction, character and action.
—Howard Moss, The New York Review of Books
How many Americans who have read Barbara Pym, Beryl Bainbridge, or Iris Murdoch have ever heard of Olivia Manning? Yet she is one of the most gifted English writers of her generation…. Nobody has written better about World War II—the feel of fighting it and its dislocating effects on ordinary, undistinguished lives.
—Eve Auchincloss, The New York Times
Olivia Manning’s greatest achievements are the Balkan and Levant novels. In these she handles her daunting wealth of material with great artistic dexterity and an admirable sense of proportion that at the same time never reduces. Nor does her concern to understand public events impair her analytical comprehension of the private lives of her people…. Olivia Manning wrote as courageously about death and the fear of death—in combat, in accident, through disease, through age—as any novelist in our language this century.
—Paul Binding, New Statesman
But also the unobtrusiveness of this unforgettable book is a function of Olivia Manning’s style. At first one wonders, ‘Why doesn’t she write more?’ for this is a very austere and self-denying manner. But gradually we become aware that she doesn’t need to ‘write,’ to make things up to beguile us, because what she has so powerfully observed is true, and she has set it down without fuss.
—Richard Dyer, The Boston Globe
These books are clearly among the very best fiction about the Second World War. They are written with the English poise and understatement that Jane Austen raised to its highest art form.
—Chris Patten, The Sunday Times