There is actually little difference as to colour in the moment before the blow and the moment before the kiss: the negligible space between her and him was now charged, full force, with the intensity of their two beings. Something speechless, tenacious, unlovable — himself — was during that instant exposed in Harrison’s eyes: it was a crisis — the first this evening, not the first she had known — of his emotional idiocy, and it was as unnerving as might be a brain-storm in someone without a brain.
(from The Heat of the Day, pages 43-44 in the old hardcover version I read, which unfortunately had no cover)
The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen, first published in the U.S. in 1949, is a novel set in World War II London just after the Blitz. It covers several interconnected characters but mainly focuses on Stella Rodney, who is told by a man named Harrison that her lover, Robert, is a spy for the Nazis, and he won’t turn him in if she breaks things off with Robert and becomes his lover. She first meets Harrison at the funeral of her dead ex-husband’s cousin, who leaves his estate to Stella’s son, Roderick, despite never having met him. Harrison’s presence at the funeral is odd; no one knows him, but he seems to know Stella and soon edges himself into her life. She doesn’t know anything about Harrison or his occupation, and she doesn’t know what to think when he delivers his ultimatum.
Bowen also follows Roderick, Stella’s son, a young soldier whose life appears to be mapped out for him by the inheritance of Mount Morris; Robert, Stella’s lover, and his eccentric family; Louie, a young woman who struggles with isolation and loneliness since her parents are dead and her husband is off at war; and Louie’s friend, Connie, who has an obsession with newspapers. The Heat of the Day centers on how the war affected London’s inhabitants, particularly their interactions and quickly-formed relationships, and how some people struggled to find themselves or questioned the meaning of freedom.
This was a hard book to read. Bowen’s writing style was all over the place. There are some passages that flow really well, but much of the book is chunks of unnatural dialogue and rambling descriptions. It took me a week to read it (my copy was only 372 pages), mostly because my mind would wander and I’d doze off, or I’d have to keep re-reading a paragraph to decipher what she was trying to say given the awkward sentence construction. My issues with the writing started pretty much from the first page, but I continued reading because it was the March pick for the Literature and War Readalong. Then I kept going because I was curious about whether Robert really was a spy, and by the time I found out, I figured I may as well just finish the book because I was almost at the end anyway.
However, it wasn’t just the writing that didn’t work for me. I was intrigued by Harrison, this mystery man Bowen put behind all of the tense scenes of the novel, but it was disappointing that I never really got to know him. I didn’t find Stella and Robert’s relationship realistic, nor did I understand the purpose of including Louie and Connie, as their story really had nothing to do with the rest of the book; Louie’s only connection to the rest of the characters was through chance meetings that served only as interruptions.
I guess my thoughts on this book boil down to a few questions that I had to ask myself. Was it a satisfying World War II novel? Unfortunately, no. I wanted very much to like this book, but the execution fell short. It doesn’t make wartime London come to life in the exciting way that Susan Elia MacNeal‘s Maggie Hope series does. Am I sorry I took the time to finish the book? No. I’d long wanted to read Bowen’s work. Would I recommend this book? That’s hard to say. If you don’t mind lengthy descriptions and weirdly crafted sentences, then the characters might make this worth a try. Mostly, I found reading this book to be a chore, with the odd moment of enjoyment here and there, but there’s a sense of satisfaction in crossing it off my to-read list!
I read The Heat of the Day for the Literature and War Readalong on Beauty is a Sleeping Cat. Click here to read and/or join the discussion.
Disclosure: I borrowed The Heat of the Day from the public library.
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