This is my third Elizabeth Bowen in just over a month…I can’t get enough! I’ve already got my next one lined up…if I haven’t convinced you to try her yet, can I implore you to please pick up something next time you’re in a library or a bookshop? I promise you won’t be disappointed!
The Heat of the Day is terrific; tense, atmospheric, sublimely written and magnificently characterised. Set during the middle years of the war in a London steeped in darkness and bleeding from gaping wounds inflicted by the Blitz, every page oozes foreboding. The characters; aristocratic, beautiful, misunderstood Stella; shady, manipulative, desperate Harrison; naive, lonely, lost Louie, and Robert, the never revealed centre of it all, are the perfect inhabitants for this shadowy, unpredictable world where death looms around every corner and the sky smoulders, where people live without the certainty of a tomorrow and morals no longer exist. In showing the underbelly of wartime life, The Heat of the Day strongly reminded me of To Bed with Grand Music, and if you loved that, I know you’ll love this.
The book opens on a cool early Autumn evening, in twilight. There is an open air concert in Regent’s Park, but half the deckchairs are empty, and the air of joviality feels false. There is something dangerous; defiant, even, in being out in the open in the evening, with the threat of bombs ever present and the disembowelled houses just outside the perimeter of the park a stark reminder of what the darkness of the night could bring. Louie, a young factory worker living alone in a dingy flat, is at the concert to stave off the loneliness that she faces in going home. Her parents were killed in an air raid and her husband is away at the front; she has nothing and no one. Seeking a connection, she strikes up a conversation with the man sitting next to her. Harrison is a gruff and preoccupied middle aged man, with no time for a sloppy girl barely out of her teens trying to charm him. His thoughts are elsewhere; when the concert has finished, he is going to pay a visit to Stella, a beautiful, classy middle aged divorcee who he is in love with. Stella, however, is in love with Robert, a handsome, dashing bachelor with a busy and important job and an impenetrable private life.
These four characters are bound together by their presence in an alien London, and by the depths of their lives that they keep secret from one another. Stella, preoccupied with her son Roderick’s impending departure to the front and her guardianship of his newly inherited Irish estate, has a reputation she doesn’t deserve and lives in shabbily genteel rented flats filled with other people’s belongings. Harrison prowls the streets at night, watching in the darkness…for what? Louie brings strange soldiers home to bed, to fill the space her husband has left behind. Robert leaves a dressing gown and pajamas at Stella’s flat to create an illusion of cosy domesticity, but their relationship is a world away from that of husband and wife. Secrets and lies, love and admiration, doubt and danger, form a web between these characters, and as the novel progresses, the web binds them ever closer, ever tighter, until the gripping end.
The Heat of the Day is filled with brilliant characters, fantastic period details, and intriguing insights into the darker side of wartime London. Most of all, however, its strength lies in its central mystery, of what exactly Harrison has got to do with Stella, and why he wants her to stop seeing Robert. This uncertainty pervades the novel entirely, leaving the reader forever unsure of where the next page will lead. Added to that are the questionable activities of the periphery characters, and the constant sense of danger of being in London during bombing raids, making the fate of everyone in the novel truly hang by a thread. It’s thrilling!
This is the sort of book you have to read slowly; to savour the magnificent prose, to feel the uneasy atmosphere settle over you, to marvel at the intricately wrought plot and little details that together form a breathtakingly real wartime London. The darkness of the blackout envelops you and the air raid sirens ring incessantly in your mind while you read, hurling you helplessly into the lives of the characters Bowen brings so effortlessly to life. Bowen isn’t for everyone, I know; her prose is not straightforward, her characters are often difficult to penetrate, and her plotting sometimes hard to follow – but allow time to immerse yourself in her world, let the fantastic, ever so period dialogue between the characters come alive in your mind, and you will soon find her novels irresistible, addictive, and utterly unputdownable.
While I was in London a few weeks ago I just so happened to pop into one of my favourite book shops on Charing Cross Road and I found a nice first edition of The Heat of the Day for mere pennies. So, my rather bashed about but still very nice Vintage paperback is up for grabs – I’ll send it anywhere. Let me know in the comments if you want it – but you have to promise to read it and review it – I want the whole world to know about Elizabeth Bowen!