Back at the end of December, I was given quite a few new books by various kind people for Christmas. As I was adding them to the bookshelves, I thought back to the previous Christmas, and the books that I had been given then. It was then that I remembered that I had asked for and received a copy of Elizabeth Bowen’s novel, The Heat of the Day, which I had somehow overlooked during the last twelve months.

I do feel a bit bad when people give me good books (often ones that I myself have asked for) and yet a year or two later I have still not read them. For example, my mother-in-law bought me a hard back copy of Hilary Mantel’s Woolf Hall two or three years ago, and each time I see it on the shelf I feel slightly guilty for not having read it yet. I have a few books like this. They are all novels I absolutely want to read, but their turn has not yet come.

Anyway, enough of my unread-book-present-guilt. What is The Heat of the Day all about?

The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

At its heart, this is a love story set in wartime London during WW2. But then again, perhaps using that phrase is misleading, as the “love story” the novel relates is rather a complicated and unhappy one.

Plus, being a noir, things are rarely as simple as they seem. Certainly throughout much of the narrative, little is stated outright, so you have to pick up on the hints and clues and suggestions that the different characters drop.

Habit, of which passion must be wary, may all the same be the sweetest part of love.

Our protagonist, the intelligent, sophisticated Stella, chose to remain in central London during the blitz, even when many others left the city. It is within this dangerous, chaotic, shadowy environment that she met her lover, Robert. At the point of the novel’s opening, the two have been together for a couple of years, seemingly happy together.

So far so good. But the twist comes when Stella meets Harrison, a mysterious man who hints that he works for the British secret service, and who claims that Robert has been leaking information to the Germans. Could this possibly be true? Bowen certainly does a good job here of getting us to feel the tension, the darkness, and the suspicion that seems to permeate London and all that Stella knows.

Naturally this assertion, and Harrison’s cold, calculating manner throws Stella off-balance. Can she believe Harrison? Can she trust Robert? As the days and weeks pass, many of the accepted, solid facts of her life begin to seem far less solid.

‘Oh, I should doubt,’ she exclaimed, ‘whether there’s any such thing as an innocent secret! Whatever has been buried, surely, corrupts? Nothing keeps innocence innocent but daylight. A truth’s just a truth, to start with, with no particular nature, good or bad – but how can any truth not go bad from being underground?’

Then alongside this central plot, there are also a couple of sub-plots involving other characters and exploring other themes.

So what did I make of the novel?

Well, I enjoyed it…in part. I found Stella to be an interesting character, and certainly the fragile triangle formed by her, Robert and Harrison makes for a gripping read. The book’s setting in London during the blitz was also fascinating. Then there is the intelligent exploration into how well one can really ever know another person.

However, I was less convinced by either of the two sub-plots (one involving Stella’s son and his inheritance of a property, and the other following the life of a simple, poor character named Louie). Plus the writing itself is a little too dense and loose for my liking. (Bowen frequently changes the normal word ordering of familiar phrases, which I am sure she did for a purpose, but I found this technique clumsy and annoying.)

I also found the ending very unsatisfactory. The last conversation we overhear between Stella and Harrison is highly ambiguous, which I found frustrating after having followed their story for 300-plus pages. I was also expecting that the different plot-lines would come together in some way, or take on some greater significance at the novel’s close, but this desire was also frustrated. I know that a noir is not likely to offer a nice, neat resolution to complex situations, but I still felt that this was a very odd and ultimately unsatisfying ending.

If you liked this, you might also enjoy: The New York Trilogy by Paul Auster or The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan.

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