The Rain Forest by Olivia Manning

The Rain Forest by Olivia Manning was published in 1974. The setting is the fictional island of Al-Bustan in the Indian Ocean. In fact it must be the island of Madagascar as there are lemurs in Al-Bustan and apparently lemurs only live in Madagascar, although Madagascar was a French colony.

Hugh and Kristy Foster are a married couple who have gone to Al-Bustan so that Hugh can take up the offer of a British government job. Hugh has written one novel in the past, then he got very lucrative work as a film script writer. Kristy is a succesfull novelist, something which Hugh is rather jealous of.

They’d been married for 11 years when the film script work dried up, they had lived the high life in London to the hilt and had spent all of their money, with nothing to show for it, hence the need to go to Al-Bustan for work. When Hugh gets there he realises that there is no real job for him, he has nothing to do all day and the other British people look down their noses at them. The one thing which he does do is he gives a travel permit to another British man which allows him to go to the other side of the island to the rain forest, to do some research on the area, it’s a place where escaped slaves used to hide. The red ants there could strip a man to a skeleton overnight.

Al-Bustan is about to get its independence so there is a political struggle going on and the Brits are determined to do all they can to stop the country from reverting to slavery which they think will happen if the Arabic factions gain power.

Olivia Manning often wrote about colonialism and imperialism, she seems to have realised much earlier than her contemporaries how destructive and unpopular the British were when they colonised countries. Her husband was a British Council lecturer so they travelled around various parts of the empire.

Her books are all autobiographical and she used people whom she had met as copy so it’s a fair account of what life was like at the end of the raj I’m sure. Heartbreakingly she had some terrible experiences of her own which she also used in this book, maybe it was cathartic for her.

I enjoyed this book but it isn’t a patch on her Balkan and Levant trilogies which I could hardly put down. I wondered if there was a sequel to The Rain Forest as the book just ended and you don’t discover what happens to Hugh and Kristy, and as I particularly liked Kristy with her love of the animals and the plants on the island it would have been nice for loose ends to be tied up, but it’s left to the reader’s imagination I suppose.

By complete coincidence, the day I finished reading this book there was an article on the news about Madagascar, the lemurs and the people and how the children are being educated to value the wildlife and the trees. Better late than never I suppose but it was the future development which was obviously worrying Manning when she wrote this book, it’s probably just as well that she never knew that there is now only 10% of the rain forest left.