They were the creatures of history, whose coming together was of a nature possible in no other day the day was inherent in the nature This novel reads like a riddle What am I Am I a spy thriller Am I historical fiction Am I a love story A character study An experimental mix of all those things As a plot, I suspected I wouldn t like it, and I was wrong A two faced spy in wartime London, working for the enemy Nazi Germany How could I possibly find anything likable in his character, feel with him when his lover despairs of him Well, I could As Elizabeth Bowen puts it in the beginning, the characters in her story are impossible from a literary standpoint for they ought to be credible above all They are not They engage in their own ideas of the universe, and from their individual perspective, they make sense.And as a reader, I follow the changing rules of the fiction and the history of the time and I find myself smiling at the cunning of the locked away mad people, at the naive trust of spies, at the unlikely allegiance one feels with the random minor characters who walk London s streets with just the same amount of life and passion as the major players of the show Being pregnant when your husband has been away in the war for years is a plot in itself, and the solutions to the problem may vary Sometimes chance plays into your hands while at other times, it plays against you If it plays, that is.A story dominated by private beliefs and worries, it nonetheless uses the impressive backdrop of world war news to structure the plot and put the characters issues into perspective The headlines got that over for you in half a second, deciding for you every event s importance by the size of the print Occasionally, the characters find themselves to be newsworthy thus seeing themselves in touch with the bigger picture of which they are part, and to which they wear matching behaviours and attitudes, whether they like it or not In the artistic composition of wartime London life, each shade has its own place in the slowly evolving painting, and each situation adds to the contrast and nuance of the whole.So what is it, then This enigmatic, yet so outspoken and modern novel What is it Eloquently, she answered nothing whatever, not even looking up The eloquent silence in the novel came in response to the eternal question You love me To which the reader answers Yes. This is a brittle, opaque story of a strange kind of love triangle set in the dark glamour of war time London The melo dramatic plot is contained and constrained within a quiet, very restrained sense of telling so that the narrative seems to be in tension with itself.There is a muted intensity to all personal interactions, and this is the kind of book where we need to pay attention to every word spoken, to every tiny gesture made, to almost decode the currents between people.If you come to this book expecting either a war time romance, or a spy story then you will inevitably be disappointed So much of this book is obscure, based around things not said, actions not taken, deeds which don t happen, and the book is haunted by ghosts not just the dead, but the bombed churches which cannot ring their bells, and the dead souls of the living.London is familiar and yet also alien, and many of the characters are portrayed in a similar way So this is an odd book in lots of ways which keeps us feeling somehow just a little off kilter but it builds up into a strange, almost dreamy, mysterious and peculiarly haunting read. Out of mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was drawn fine From the moment of waking you tasted the sweet autumn not less because of an acridity on the tongue and nostrils and as the singed dust settled and smoke diluted you felt and called upon to observe the daytime as a pure and curious holiday from fear Ostensibly The Heat of the Day is a spy novel, a wartime noir In the first chapter Stella, the heroine, is told by a shady individual called Harrison that her lover, Robert, is selling secrets to the enemy Harrison offers to withhold this information from his superiors if Stella agrees to become his lover To begin with Stella is dubious If what Robert does is performing an act for her then the implication is that his love too is part of the act A surface cracks The habitat of love in which Stella has lived comes to resemble the broken exposed bombed buildings littering London s landscape Bowen is brilliant at relating these inward crisis moments to the external world Every description of place contains psychological insights into her characters When, later, Stella visits Robert s home she is horrified by the suffocating deceit of decorum she encounters in his mother and sister, a decorum that has already humiliated and unmanned Robert s father Robert calls his mother Muttikins Enough said The rot starts at home Stella herself is involved in a deceit She had deceived her son about his father Contrary to popular belief it was not she who betrayed him but the other way round When her husband died after betraying Stella for his nurse Stella decides to court the fiction that she was the femme fatale, perhaps for reasons of glamourising her self image Betrayal and deceit are ubiquitous tensions in this novel The theme of deceit is taken up by another character, the orphaned and disingenuous Louie who is betraying her absent enlisted husband with a succession of casual affairs with men She does this, paradoxically, to bring her husband closer On a deeper level The Heat of the day is a novel about dispossession About the precarious nature of any habitat, whether it s a physical habitat like home or an emotional habitat like love The novel begins in September 1942 when London is being bombed every night Bowen evokes a landscape in which homes can vanish overnight Habit, of which passion must be wary, may all the same be the sweetest part of love Habit, dependent on habitat, is a vanishing luxury in this novel Much of the novel takes place in homes We have Stella s flat which is borrowed, we have Robert s family s home which is for sale We have the crumbling house in Ireland that Stella s son inherits We have the flat where Louie lives and from where her husband is poignantly absent And we have the nursing home where cousin Nettie lives Stella sees homes exposed as she rides the train It was striking how listlessly, shiftlessly and frankly life in these houses exposed itself to the eyes in the passing or halting trains Home it s a precarious structure, both physically and emotionally Bowen s sentences in this novel are as rutted and rubbled as London s wartime streets Often cataracted with double and sometimes triple negatives as if speech itself is hampered, battling against a relentless hostile tide She plays with idioms too, grotesquely altering them as if the lynchpins of civilised life are being hacked away There s a deliberate forsaking of fluidity in her prose The last sentence implies the war is the swansong of an era of western civilisation, not an era Bowen seems to approve of Bowen actually wrote this novel during the war and, unlike WW2 novels written later, isn t trying to impress with the depth of her research It s a consideration she is able to ignore because the world she is describing is outside her window The odd thing is, because we re so familiar with the way London during the blitz has been portrayed stagemanaged by popular media, Bowen s depiction can at times be bizzarely less convincing.It should be pointed out that this is not a work of realism Robert s adherence to the Nazis is barely credible as a concrete possibility Many have wondered, with justification, if Bowen should have had him siding with the Russians Bowen after all was familiar with Burgess and the Cambridge spies However this implausible detail doesn t detract from the novel s psychological power It s not her best novel I d award that plaudit to Death of the Heart but is well worth reading. 5 astonishingly astute and unsentimentally intimate stars I had the pleasure in 2015 to read The Death of the Heart and was moved by the experience of young sixteen year old Portia that was cruelly played by some minor villains That was one of my top ten reads of that year and rated a very high 4.5 stars This book surpasses that one in scope, insight and atmosphere This is a chamber masterpiece that is mostly conversational in nature taking place in London and surrounding countryside during World War 2 This is a romance, an intrigue and a noir all in one The characters are all very alluring, secretive, isolated and rather eccentrically complex We know little of their histories but get to know their outer and inner natures through genuine and organic conversations that they have in dyads and sometimes triads Minor characters often take centre stage and are as well drawn out as the main protagonists London is being bombed and romances are flaring, encounters are fleeting, morals are compromised, souls are near bankrupt A deep and important novel of how urban dwellers fared, how men and women both desire and con each other, how mothers worship their sons, how spies are not evil and how people continue to revel and cry often within the same day.A stunning literary achievement published in 1948.A warm thank you to Violet W who recommended this book to me TotalityI first read and reviewed Elizabeth Bowen s novel of the Second World War in 2007, and did not especially like it A few days ago, however, I finished The Love charm of Bombs, Lara Feigel s study of five novelists in the London Blitz, and was struck by how all her best quotations seemed to come from Bowen Looking back at the novel now, I see that Feigel might as well not have bothered writing her book the first eight pages of Bowen s fifth chapter says about war, death, and love than a hundred in the Feigel It is not just her physical descriptions of bomb torn London that are superb From the moment of waking you tasted the sweet autumn not less because of an acridity on the tongue and nostrils , but her psychology, whether talking about the dead Most of all the dead, from mortuaries, from under cataracts of rubble, made their anonymous presence not as today s dead but as yesterday s living felt through London Uncounted, they continued to move in shoals through the city day, pervading everything to be seen or heard or felt with their torn off senses, drawing on this tomorrow they had expected for death cannot be so sudden as all that. or the living The very temper of pleasures lay in their chanciness, in the canvaslike impermanence of their settings, in their being off time to and fro between bars and grills, clubs and each other s places moved the little shoal through the noisy nights Faces came and went There was a diffused gallantry in the atmosphere, an unmarriedness it came to be rud that everybody in London was in love. Stella Rodney, Bowen s protagonist, a divorced woman approaching 40, is certainly in love, and has been for the past two years She met Robert Kelway, a veteran of Dunkirk now working at the War Office, at the beginning of the bombing in 1940 it is now 1942 I was struck, though, by how long Bowen takes to introduce us to Kelway Like Graham Greene would do in his own great wartime romance novel, The End of the Affair, published three years after Bowen s in 1951, she begins when the relationship is already under threat Stella gets a visit from a mysterious man called Harrison who tells her that Robert is a spy, but appears to be willing to trade Stella s love for his silence It is not just a matter of structure Harrison is a quintessential Greene character, and the topic of spy and counterspy is Greene s bread and butter but it sits uneasily on Bowen s table.At my first reading, I was greatly influenced by the quotation from The Atlantic Monthly printed prominently on the gorgeous front cover Imagine a Graham Greene thriller projected through the sensibility of Virginia Woolf I found myself concentrating on the first part of this comparison, largely due to the apparent similarity of subject matter, But the thriller aspect of Bowen s novel simply does not work the many episodes featuring other characters dilute the tension, and the climax is psychological than physical This time, inspired by a new respect for Bowen gained from reading the Feigel, I came to the novel with the assumption that Bowen knew exactly what she was doing if she did not succeed in writing a Graham Greene thriller, it was simply because she had no intention of doing so The Virginia Woolf comparison, though, is a good one in this light, the book shines triumphantly.It can t only have been the London setting that made me think of Mrs Dalloway, although Bowen s descriptions of that city are eminently worthy of Woolf The opening chapter, for example, describing an open air concert in Regent s Park is enthralling in its eye for detail and ear for the cadence of the English language Bowen can do this equally well with an underground after hours club, or the back yards of houses seen from a crawling train, and she makes a point of including lower or lower middle class characters though not with equal success The impression I take away is exactly the same as with Mrs Dalloway of the totality of life of all the lives being led at the same time in this wartime city of an individual s life being defined not merely by its peak moments but through childhood, family, friends, and future even the private country that lovers inhabit in their togetherness is both out of the world and in it They were not alone, nor had they been from the start, from the start of love, writes Bowen when Stella and Robert sit down to a late supper their time sat in the third place at their table. Near the end of the novel, Stella thinks back on their love, in a passage that makes me think of Woolf or the ending of James Joyce s story The Dead, and that is the very essence of totality She had trodden every inch of the country with him, not perhaps least when she was alone Of that country, she did not know how much was place, how much was time She thought of leaves of autumn crisply being swept up, that crystal ruined London morning when she had woken to his face she saw street after street facing into evening after evening, the sheen of spring light running on the water towards the bridges on which one stood, the vulnerable eyes of Louie stupidly carrying sky about in them, the raw earth lip of Cousin Francis s grave and the pink stamened flowers of that day alight on the chestnuts in May gloom, the asphalt pathway near Roderick s camp thrust up and cracked by the swell of ground, mapped by seeded grass. Published in 1948, this is famous as Elizabeth Bowen s war novel Written during the war, Bowen does not need to get her historical details correct, as she is living them As such, this is truly representative of London in wartime unsettled, damaged, dangerous When Stella Rodney travels to Ireland to visit the country house her son, Roderick, has been left by Cousin Francis, she delights in the lights spilling from the windows You do feel the darkness of the city whether the characters are using a torch to find their car, parked outside a station, stumbling around the city streets, or constantly dealing with the blackout, this is very much wartime London.During the war, Bowen herself was having an affair with Charles Ritchie, a Canadian diplomat In the same way as London is dark and dangerous, it also suddenly opens up unknown, exciting possibilities While the main character, Stella, is embroiled in an affair with Robert, a young woman, Louie, also feels suddenly single, with her husband fighting abroad It is as though real life, has stopped and opportunities present themselves which, normally, would be impossible Stability is crumbling, along with the buildings, and loneliness rejected for a chance of anonymous romance, as lives are transformed.In this world of instability comes Harrison an unsettling presence into Stella s life He first appears at the funeral of Cousin Francis, but later re emerges to cast doubts about Robert, who he accuses of being a spy It would be wrong, though, to suggest this is a spy novel Rather than a fast moving thriller, Stella, like so many people who are confronted with news they do not wish to hear about, literally does nothing about it at first She thinks, she wonders, she ponders, but she fends off Robert s blackmail threats and prevaricates unable to totally reject her lover.There is humour, in Robert s bizarre family and the widow of Cousin Francis, who is visited by Roderick However, with Bowen, plots such as they are unfold slowly She is an author that you will either love, or find a little slow Personally, I have always loved her writing This is not my favourite, but it is beautifully representative of her writing and her life If you are interested in the lives of authors in wartime London, you might enjoy, The Love Charm of Bombs, by Laura Feigel, which looks at Elizabeth Bowen, Graham Greene, Rose Macaulay, Hilde Spiel and Henry Yorke writing as Henry Green , who lived in London during WWII. Dear god in heaven, no This is just not working for me Closed the book, literally, on page 61 I m relieved that I m decades removed from undergrad hell where one would have had to suffer through this, as penance, if one hoped to survive the course Bowen is an exceptional and talented writer but in this one she lost the plot that she never had Ironically, I think this could well be the best plot ever invented for an award winning film one that I would even pay to see however, as a novel, it is abysmally annoying or annoyingly abysmal because it moves at a painstaking pace. In The Heat Of The Day , Elizabeth Bowen Brilliantly Recreates The Tense And Dangerous Atmosphere Of London During The Bombing Raids Of World War IIMany People Have Fled The City, And Those Who Stayed Behind Find Themselves Thrown Together In An Odd Intimacy Born Of Crisis Stella Rodney Is One Of Those Who Chose To Stay But For Her, The Sense Of Impending Catastrophe Becomes Acutely Personal When She Discovers That Her Lover, Robert, Is Suspected Of Selling Secrets To The Enemy, And That The Man Who Is Following Him Wants Stella Herself As The Price Of His Silence Caught Between These Two Men, Not Sure Whom To Believe, Stella Finds Her World Crumbling As She Learns How Little We Can Truly Know Of Those Around Us Wartime London, hints of espionage and with lots of references to spirits and ghosts, albeit most often in a metaphorical sense Buildings are also very significant Stella s flat which she changes when her life changes , Wistaria Lodge odd care home , Mount Morris Irish inheritance , Holme Dene Robert s family home to sell or not Quite episodic some chapters and characters quite separate from the main narrative, but Bowen s wonderful use of language shines though. This book had the potential to be a 4 star read for me, yet I found the writing SO laborious and detailed, that I was wavering between 2 and 3 stars To be totally honest, 2 stars won out.That said, the premise of the story is wonderful on many layers We have love, loss, intense wartime drama set in London in the 1940 s, mystery, intrigue, espionage, and about a dozen very interesting and different characters The beginning pages grabbed me immediately as the author wrote of an outdoor concert with a Viennese orchestra playing We first meet a mysterious character, Harrison, and a fun loving woman named Louie Harrison is very preoccupied as he s set to meet another woman, Stella, to tell her that her lover, Robert, is selling secrets to the enemy From there, the book delves primarily into the lives of Stella her son, Roderick Robert and Louie, but Harrison s past remains a mystery Throughout the entire book, I was never sure of anyone s integrity or certain how the book would finally end Even when something had taken place, I was never sure that it really happened For that, I give it high marks for mystery and intrigue But, unfortunately, the dense writing made it fall very short of the mark for me.The books that I read give my thoughts on the writing style some credence, IMO I m very glad I got through it, and give thanks to one of my GR friends, Susan, for that since we did it as a joint read If the book got into the hands of a really good editor, I m sure I would have enjoyed it much.
Elizabeth Dorothea Cole Bowen, CBE was an Anglo Irish novelist and short story writer.
- 415 pages
- The Heat of the Day
- Elizabeth Bowen
- 18 January 2018 Elizabeth Bowen