School for Love by Olivia Manning

School for Love
323 pages; NYRB Classics
How, in just a few pages, does a writer earn our trust, and her characters our allegiance? Olivia Manning's work has been out of sight for decades, but her newly reissued School for Love is about to charm and startle a whole new generation of readers. It's partly Manning's gift for evoking the sensory world: A misty sea looks "like green milk," a warm cat's paws are "limp and tender with sleep." And Manning creates characters who are so exactly, physically there in front of us that their reality is unquestionable. Young Felix, an orphan, is sent into the confusion of Jerusalem in 1945 to live with a distant relation, Miss Bohun, an elderly Christian language teacher who may be a penny-pincher (only one lamp may be lit at a time), but is certainly kindhearted. Or is she? The "school for love," for Felix, is the matrix of Miss Bohun's household, a world of displaced lodgers and needy renters where an impressionable young man learns what generosity is and is not. On repotting an overgrown plant, Miss Bohun remarks, "Now you can see what a fine plant it has become. I hope...if God is ever good enough to put you into a larger pot, you'll reward Him in the same way." If only Miss Bohun—and all the gestures we make that seem to be founded in love—were as straightforward and simple as they appear.
— Mark Doty