Old fashioned and quirky with sentences that beat to a strange rhythm, you’re not even half way through the first chapter of The Heat of the Day before you realise why the once lorded Elizabeth Bowen has fallen out of favour with modern readers.
Bowen’s seventh novel is set largely against the scarred, smoky backdrop of a Blitz battered London in the autumn of 1940. The plot is languid and almost of little consequence, a hook to hang Bowen’s idiosyncratic but often lyrical prose. The slight story centres around Stella Rodney who is informed by a strange little man named Harrison that she first meets at her Cousin Francis’ funeral that her partner, the louche Robert Kelway, is a traitorous spy.
Running in tandem (or rather languishing in the shadows) to the Stella-Harrison-Robert triangle, is Louie a strange, almost-childlike woman who is floundering in a world where she is completely alone, her parents having being killed in an air raid and her husband, Tom, away fighting. In a bid to combat her loneliness, she has frequent one night stands with strangers – the novel opens with her attempting to seduce an irritated Harrison at an outdoor concert in Regent’s Park.
Harrison has got his (wonky) eyes on Stella and is willing to break all sorts of wartime rules to use the information he has on Robert to get Stella into bed. He never comes out and says so directly because no one comes out and says anything directly in The Heat of the Day. Stella, who is an archetypal 1940s siren, all lipstick and vagueness, spends most of the novel mulling this dilemma over, does she bow to Harrison’s demands or place Robert in danger by alerting him that his cover has been blown? Stella does an awful lot of thinking and most of it seems to require a great deal of standing around in rooms, studying the rugs (there’s several lengthy passages describing the room the character is currently standing in).
Bowen’s prose is as pitch-black as wartime London and the atmosphere she creates through her meandering, fractured, almost stagey dialogue and descriptions of this period is hugely evocative and quite different to anything I’ve read about living through the Blitz ravaged city. The Blitz is used as a backdrop in many books, but rarely as evocatively and as honestly as in Bowen’s novel. You can sense the darkness, the shadowy unknowingness, the fear that gave rise to love – or perhaps just a desperation to be wanted. Strangers say goodnight to each other so if they should die they would have left a tiny imprint. I loved Bowen’s description of the gang-like feel of Londoners left behind and also their loneliness in amongst all the ‘we’re in this together’ doctrine. We’re often lead to believe that dicing with death was wonderfully fun, but writers often leave out the loneliness and solitude, the nagging tiredness and the constant tension.
The Heat of the Day is a dense, claustrophobic book that’s frustrating and wonderful in equal measures, full of staccato syntax and odd asides – it’s like Graham Greene re-written by Virginia Woolf. For all Bowen’s commitment to conquering up an ambiance, her writing is also very witty and positively Wodehousian at times, particularly during Robert’s – and on one occasion, Stella’s – trips to his childhood home Holme Dene where we meet his comically awful mother and sister (the brilliantly named Ernestine).
To spit out a cliché – something Bowen would never do – this is a book you will either love or hate. Bowen makes you work hard and the reward is an enticing, enchanting read – if you like it. If you don’t, it’s a meandering, incomprehensible, self-indulgent slog.
by Suzanne Elliott