Book review: The Heat of the Day

Elizabeth BowenAs writers we are used to being told ‘trust the reader’. As a reader, this novel is a definite case for remembering to ‘trust the author’. The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen, published in 1949, is now recognised as a classic novel about the Second World War. It tells the story of Stella Rodney and her relationship with two men, her lover Robert and Harrison, the man who suspects Robert of selling secrets to the enemy and sees this as a way of winning Stella’s love. This is not a spy novel, rather its threads and tentacles of story are woven as intricately as the lives of the three principal characters overlap with the bigger-scale events of war.

War is at the centre of it all, brooding over every minute, every decision, every pause. London, emptied of evacuees and people fleeing for safety, becomes a smaller place where strangers wish each other good luck in anticipation of that night’s bombing, where you awake in the morning and realize you are still alive. ‘Out of mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last 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 more and more called upon to observe the daytime as a pure and curious holiday from fear.’ On the whole though, the war is absent from the page. This is a story about people in extra-ordinary times.

The storyline is at times perplexing and vague and it is at those moments that I remembered to trust Elizabeth Bowen and enjoy to her language. This is the first of her novels I have read. Her stated interest was in the contrasts between life ‘with the lid on’ and what happens ‘when the lid comes off’. In The Heat of the Day, war causes the lid to be lifted. The theme of time runs throughout the novel. Daily life in London goes on but as if time is suspended from normality. Shackles have been removed and people behave differently, carelessness is common. It is in this vacuum that Stella, who lives in a rented furnished apartment with few things of her own, is given an ultimatum by Harrison. Louie, another displaced woman living in London waiting for her soldier husband who may or may not come home, appears in the first chapter as she listens to a band play in a park. Both women lie to the men in their lives, both have sex outside their monogamous relationships. Neither Robert or Harrison are as they seem. Harrison’s job is never explained, and Robert’s supposed treachery remains ill-defined.

This is a novel of shadows, appropriate as most of the novel happens at night during the blackout when the way is lit by torchlight and people blunder into furniture in darkened rooms. A very different read.

If you like this, try:-
‘The Slaves of Solitude’ by Patrick Hamilton
‘At Mrs Lippincote’s’ by Elizabeth Taylor
‘The Paying Guests’ by Sarah Waters

‘The Heat of the Day’ by Elizabeth Bowen [UK: Vintage Classics] Buy now

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