Elizabeth Bowen has a reputation for being a 'writer's writer', Ian McEwan has acknowledged his debt to her work. 'In the Heat of the Day' may be better known than this book, but it bears the same stamp of Bowen's in-depth psychological insight and a fine ability to evoke time and place. Her world is often London during, before and after the world war two and no-one has evoked the city and its diurnal and seasonal moods better. Here is Regent's Park and the glamorous London that seems untouched by the war, in the late 40's or early 50's.
Set amongst the largely idle, weathy, upper class set of post-war London's elite, the story is a 'coming of age novel', in a broad sense. Other reviewers have neatly recapped the plot so my point is to emphasise the sensitivity of the writing and to praise the heart-wrenchingly vivid portrait of a young girl, on the verge of adulthood whose vulnerablity and open-heartedness is exploited and vilified by those adults who should be caring for her. There is no physical abuse, it is the careless cruelty of the adult who has forgotten or never knew the sufferings of childhood.
In this, novel here bears some ressemblence to James's 'What Maisie Knew', in its use of the child's perspective to point up and emphasise adult corruption and veniality. But Maisie had someone to look out for her, Portia the heroine, has no-one and the reader feels acutely anxious for her. The final chapters are heart-breaking, it's true, but worth reading in order to understanding the message of the book, which is this: the corruprion of innocence is the most deadly of crimes and can be comitted by people who are merely careless, thoughtlessly cruel. And the damage is irrevocable. Childhood, the novel tells us, is not a time for the faint-hearted and if you can survive the deeply perplexing and frightening transition from innocence to experience unscathed, then nothing else life can throw at you will ever hurt so much.