A Neglected Classic: The Rain Forest by Olivia Manning

There’s nothing like discovering a great out-of-print book, especially when one has no expectations.

I have a collection of old tatty Penguins, which fall apart as I read them. Of those that remain bound, I have a favorite.  I was immediately caught in the tightly-plotted web of Olivia Manning’s The Rain Forest, published in 1974, set on an island in the Indian Ocean. If you are a fan of Graham Greene or W. Somerset Maugham, you will not be able to put it down.  This hypnotic story of an expatriate couple living on a jasmine-scented island ruled by the British is a trenchant examination of colonialism and culture clash.

Manning is no longer a neglected writer; she has been rediscovered in recent years.  In 2010 NYRB  reissued her partly autobiographical masterpiece,  Fortunes of War, in two volumes as the Balkan trilogy and the Levant trilogy.  In this compelling series, Manning follows the fortunes of a British couple, Guy Pringle, a university lecturer, and his wife, Harriet, during World War II. Adapted by the BBC as a TV series  starring Emma Thompson and Kenneth Branagh, the DVD  brought me to Manning’s books.   A biography of Olivia Manning was published in 2013.

Though Manning’s other books don’t quite live up to  Fortunes of War, The Rain Forest is a little gem.  In this strange, striking novel, she writes about another British couple, Hugh Foster, an unemployed script writer, and his wife Kristy, a novelist.  They cannot pay their income tax in England, so Hugh takes a government job in Al-Bustan, a British-ruled island populated by Arabs, Africans, and Indians.  Hugh feels like a failure as he tries to break into the class-bound society, and Kristy laughs at everybody.

From the beginning, the class system is rigid.  While the rich live at the Praslin Hotel, the middle-class British rent rooms at the Daisy Pension, where Hugh and Kristy are shunned as bohemians and outsiders.   The clique-y residents won’t even speak to them, and their only friend is the pension owner’s son, Ambrose, a former Cambridge scholar (the best in his year) who ventured into publishing, was bankrupted twice, and now lives with his mother, scheming to find investors for a new quixotic project to find a treasure ship..

Manning brilliantly captures the oppressive atmosphere of the Daisy.  And in the following passage, Manning describes the Fosters’ first meeting with Ambrose.

The government workers in their suits of khaki drill , the wives all much alike in flowered, sleeveless dresses of unfashionable length, seemed to keep dry by a refrigeration of the will.  The newcomer–who had entered late and whose table was close to the Fosters–glistened with sweat and his clothes, too heavy for the climate, were shabby, sweat-stained and, in places, split.  Bent over his food, he was still remembering Kristy and her pleasure. He was so different from the other inmates that Kristy whispered, “A human being!

As the weeks go on, Kristy is befriended by Arabs, Indians, and Africans, all of whom say they hope to take over when the British leave. (The government favors the Africans.) And Hugh also makes a dangerous friend, a doctor who wheedled a pass from him to explore the rain forest on the other side of the island, which is off limits:  he is trying to discover what caused a mysterious disease there.  Things go from bad to worse.

Loved the book.  Extraordinary writing,  great characters.