The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

 

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!

44 comments

  1. Hi Rachel: Great review – I’m still learning how to talk about the books I discuss in my blog.

    I’m about midway through Death of the Heart (and just finished the Patricia Craig Bowen biography, nearing the end of the Glendinning one – if you have to buy just one, go with Glendinning, Craig is blatently derivative of Glendenning).

    I’d love to get a copy of Heat of the Day… I have a bunch of her books, but not that one.

    I pledge to read and review it on my blog.

    Would you like to do a trade? I have hard cover copies of Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children and Min Jin Lee’s Free Food for Millionaires that I’d be happy to trade – I have read both and enjoyed them, but don’t need to hold on to them permanently…. Both were highly reviewed a couple years ago..

    Kathy aka Ruby

    1. Hi Kathy

      It’s so good to know other people are reading and enjoying Bowen too. Her writing really is such a treat. Thanks for the tip on the bio – I actually nearly bought that the other day but stopped myself because I want to read all her books first. I leafed through and saw that Glendinning talks about the books a lot and I don’t want to have the plots spoiled for me.

      Oh how sweet of you! I’m actually trying to downsize so giving away books is a joy for me! I am going to do a draw to make it fair to everyone and will let you know if you’re the lucky winner!

  2. Great review-I have already posted on this wonderful book-as i mentioned before, I loive her short stories-the collection from Vintage is just wonderful-if you have not read it yet I really urge you to read Victoria Glendenning’s biography-Bowen was a class act all the way!

    1. Hi Mel – I have a small volume of her short stories and I can’t wait to read those. The Vintage Bowens are so good aren’t they? I love their cover designs and also how comprehensively they have reprinted her work. I am definitely going to read the bio once I have read a few more of the novels – thank you for the endorsement!

  3. Three for three! The title is certainly appropriate for the weather we’ve been having isn’t it, Rachel. I have this one on my shelf, in fact, I reached for it the other day but decided on the von Arnim until your review came in. Bowen’s writing does make you slow down but in a way that is to bring pleasure, not simply so you can get the gist of what the heck is going on! Which shop(s) on Charing Cross is your favourite? There are two Bowen titles I’d like to order but may just hold off to see if I can find them in September for mere pennies as well.

    1. Oh yes, Darlene! I know you’ll love this one – it’s got you written all over it!! Well my favourite is Any Amount of Books because the basement is full of cheap hardback 1930’s and 1940’s middlebrow lit – I’ve found so much good stuff in there and you don’t have to pay more than 4 pounds for anything. They also have great classics and all sorts and it’s so cheap! I also like Quintos which has now merged with another store and is just up from Any Amount of Books – but they are slightly more expensive and have less middlebrow stuff. Henry Pordes is good as well but the staff in there aren’t very nice so I don’t tend to go in as often and they have mainly paperbacks anyway. When you come to London I will take you – hold off on buying the Bowens as I would say it’s fairly likely you’ll find what you’re looking for on Charing Cross Road.

  4. Forgive me for not sharing your enthusiasm for Ms. Bowen. Earlier this year, you wrote a rave review about one of her novels (I forget which one), which prompted me to buy 2 of her books from Amazon.com, “The House in Paris” and “The Last September.” I read the “Paris” novel and I must say it was such an ordeal that I put off reading the other! I felt like Sisyphus, the pages taking the place of the boulder, doomed to read and so often re-read what I had just read – in order to try and make sense out of it all! I fear it’s just me, and to all of you Bowen admirers, mea culpa!

    1. Oh Frankie, what a shame! I haven’t read The House in Paris yet so I can’t comment on whether it’s typical or not, but do read The Last September – if that doesn’t convince you then maybe To the North is. I know her style isn’t for everyone but if you give her another go perhaps you’ll be able to see what I love about her! I am glad that you persevered though – I often don’t so kudos to you for that!

      1. Sorry I just now get around to thank you for your reply. I have not yet read The Last September, but promise to give it a try. I will let you know.
        Frankie

  5. I would love to read it! I’ll throw my hat in the ring, if you truly don’t mind sending it to Canada. Have always meant to read Elizabeth Bowen especially since finding one of her books in my father’s wonderful collection. I promise to review it! And I’ve tweeted your review. I feel badly that I have enjoyed your wonderful blog for many months, and don’t believe I’ve commented once! A suburb blog, you put your heart and soul into it. Thank you.

    1. DB of course I don’t mind sending to Canada! Fingers crossed for you.Oh thank you – I’m so glad you’ve said hello and that you enjoy my blog – it really means a lot! Thank you for reading!

    1. You’re welcome Liz! It’s not a problem – you can always review on amazon! I shall enter you anyway! I’d love for you to be able to try her for the first time.

  6. I feel the same way about Zola, I can’t stop reading (and buying) his books! No need to put my name in the draw as I have waaaay too many books right now, but I’ll put this on the TBR list. I do have The Death of the Heart so I’ll try to move it up on the list.

    1. I have never read any Zola but I have been intrigued by your reviews! French literature is definitely an area in which I am lacking – perhaps something to tackle this coming year. I hope you manage to get to Bowen soon!

  7. Wonderful review, Rachel, but, I think I will pass on the book. Not that I don’t want to read it, or Bowen. It’s just that my piles are so big and some projects are hanging in the wings and I have a few more weeks of blurry vision to deal with (you should see how large the type is right now, tee hee).

    I was really drawn in by the second to last paragraph you wrote about the book. It is so hard to imagine what Britain’s people endured during the Blitz and I remain in awe at their courage.

    1. Thank you Penny! I know how it is – and I hope your eyes are back in tip top condition very soon.

      This really is a great book for helping you to understand the difficulties and danger of living through the Blitz – my grandparents’ stories of how terrifying it was send shivers down my spine.

  8. I absolutely have to read this but don’t put me in the draw as I’m travelling for the next many weeks and so can’t receive parcels. In any case I have to read it NOW! So I’m off to Amazon to look for it. It sounds like it would make a perfect pair with Patrick Hamilton’s wonderful Slaves of Solitude, also set in the middle of the war.

    1. That’s the response I was looking for Harriet! I’m so glad I managed to draw you in and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! Happy travelling!

  9. Your review was like a beacon of inspiration and I feel I must read this novel and as many by Miss Bowen as I can. I would be honoured to receive and review the book and I might do so in 1940s period clothes to honour it!
    Thank you so much for your passion and enthusiasm – your blog is so interesting and encourages me that I’m not the only one with an avid inetrest in lesser known authors. I bought a signed Anne Macgillivray at the weekend and canot find a thing about her anywhere, but I found it next to Mrs Tim so it must be a good sign!

    1. Oh bless you, Katya – I’m glad to hear that! You get those 1940’s clothes on and hopefully The Heat of the Day will be winging its way to you shortly!

      Thank you so much for saying that – I am so touched and also delighted to see another obscure author lover out there. You have intrigued me with Anne Macgillivray – I’m off to see if I can find out more about her!

  10. I was so taken by your review that I felt I was in the story as I was reading it. How awful it is to be sucked back to reality after falling into such a wonderful story. I would love to be considered for the Heat of the Day, granted that you do not mind sending it to South Africa. You have created a new Bowen enthusiast, so I shall look out for her titles when I go book shopping again

  11. It feels so good to hear you appreciate Elizabeth Bowen and I’m longing for the day I see you’ve read The House in Paris, her best I think. That and the very touching tugging Death of the Heart.

    I’m with Edith – Love’s Civil War has to be read to truly understand her. I cried very sadly after reading the final letters (it’s a collection of letters).

    1. I have The House in Paris on my TBR pile, Chrissy – I will get to it very soon. I shall read all of them eventually – as soon as I can buy them up!

      Oh Chrissy! I shall definitely get hold of that!

  12. I started this book some time ago and then was sidetracked… I know… Fickle! It’s back on the TBR bookcase now and I’ll have another go when I’ve finished The Fountain Overflows.

  13. Well, I got it, brought it with me to India, and have just finished reading it. What an incredible book. I will be reviewing it soon but I am at a loss to know how to add anything to your brilliant review. It took me a little while to get into it but once I did I started to love it so much — as you say, it really has to be savoured and I have been rationing myself to a small chunk a day and reading very slowly and carefully. I am tempted to start again at the beginning straight away. So what other Bowens should I read? I’ve on;ly read one so far, which was a while ago but I think was Death of the Heart. Thanks again!

    1. Fantastic news, Harriet – I am SO glad to hear that! It does take a while to pick up but once the pace is set…my goodness! It is something to treasure. Well I would recommend your next Bowen to be To the North…I think it surpasses The Heat of the Day and you will be breathless by the end.

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