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3.6 out of 5 stars17
3.6 out of 5 stars
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This is a brittle, opaque story of a strange kind of `love triangle' set in the dark glamour of war-time London. The (melo)dramatic plot is contained and constrained within a quiet, very restrained sense of telling so that the narrative seems to be in tension with itself.

There is a muted intensity to all personal interactions, and this is the kind of book where we need to pay attention to every word spoken, to every tiny gesture made, to almost decode the currents between people.

If you come to this book expecting either a war-time romance, or a spy story then you will inevitably be disappointed. So much of this book is obscure, based around things not said, actions not taken, deeds which don't happen, and the book is haunted by ghosts: not just the dead, but the bombed churches which cannot ring their bells, and the dead souls of the living.

London is familiar and yet also alien, and many of the characters are portrayed in a similar way. So this is an odd book in lots of ways which keeps us feeling somehow just a little off-kilter - but it builds up into a strange, almost dreamy, mysterious and peculiarly haunting read.
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on 31 March 2009
Elizabeth Bowen, who stayed in London during the blitz, perfectly captures wartime in the Capital. She vividly creates a city inhabited by the living and the dead. Stella the main character roams through London and lives in strange rented rooms. She like the other people who haven't fled, are drawn into a careless intimacy: causal meetings in cafes and bars, brief encounters in the street. Stella's dead husband is still a shadow over her life but she tries to focus on her lover Robert and Roderick, her son. However things begin to unravel with the arrival of the loitering Harrison. Harrison threatens to disrupt her life and hurt those she loves. Stella can stop him but his silence like everything else comes at price. Stella's life begins to crumble around her.

This isn't an action packed novel of spies and espionage that it might seem but that is all to the book's benefit. Stella and the other characters are all perfectly observed and beautifully portrayed. Bowen's prose draws you into those nights of fear and steaming days of ennui, the `hot yellow sands of each afternoon'. High moments of the story are attached to historical Allied events but this isn't a war story as such, although it does deal with lives irreparably altered by the outbreak of war. I love the rhythm and the delicate nature of the prose, there is a haunting beauty to this book that deserves to be more widely known.

Here's another interesting book about the run up to the Second World War:
The Separate Principle
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on 19 November 2015
"Out of mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of 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."

Ostensibly The Heat of the Day is a spy novel, a wartime noir.
In the first chapter Stella, the heroine, is told by a shady individual called Harrison that her lover, Robert, is selling secrets to the enemy. Harrison offers to withhold this information from his superiors if Stella agrees to become his lover. To begin with Stella is dubious. If what Robert does is performing an act for her then the implication is that his love too is part of the act. A surface cracks. The habitat of love in which Stella has lived comes to resemble the broken exposed bombed buildings littering London’s landscape. Bowen is brilliant at relating these inward crisis moments to the external world. Every description of place contains psychological insights into her characters. When, later, Stella visits Robert’s home she is horrified by the suffocating deceit of decorum she encounters in his mother and sister, a decorum that has already humiliated and unmanned Robert’s father. Robert calls his mother Muttikins. Enough said! The rot starts at home.
Stella herself is involved in a deceit. She had deceived her son about his father. Contrary to popular belief it was not she who betrayed him but the other way round. When her husband died after betraying Stella for his nurse Stella decides to court the fiction that she was the femme fatale, perhaps for reasons of glamourising her self-image.
Betrayal and deceit are ubiquitous tensions in this novel. The theme of deceit is taken up by another character, the orphaned and disingenuous Louie who is betraying her absent enlisted husband with a succession of casual affairs with men. She does this, paradoxically, to bring her husband closer.
On a deeper level The Heat of the day is a novel about dispossession. About the precarious nature of any habitat, whether it’s a physical habitat like home or an emotional habitat like love. The novel begins in September 1942 when London is being bombed every night. Bowen evokes a landscape in which homes can vanish overnight. “Habit, of which passion must be wary, may all the same be the sweetest part of love.” Habit, dependent on habitat, is a vanishing luxury in this novel. Much of the novel takes place in homes. We have Stella’s flat which is borrowed, we have Robert’s family’s home which is for sale. We have the crumbling house in Ireland that Stella’s son inherits. We have the flat where Louie lives and from where her husband is poignantly absent. And we have the nursing home where cousin Nettie lives. Stella sees homes exposed as she rides the train: “It was striking how listlessly, shiftlessly and frankly life in these houses exposed itself to the eyes in the passing or halting trains.”
Home it’s a precarious structure, both physically and emotionally.
Bowen’s sentences in this novel are as rutted and rubbled as London’s wartime streets. Often cataracted with double and sometimes triple negatives – as if speech itself is hampered, battling against a relentless hostile tide. She plays with idioms too, grotesquely altering them – as if the lynchpins of civilised life are being hacked away. There’s a deliberate forsaking of fluidity in her prose.
The last sentence implies the war is the swansong of an era of western civilisation, not an era Bowen seems to approve of.
Bowen actually wrote this novel during the war and, unlike WW2 novels written later, isn’t trying to impress with the depth of her research. It’s a consideration she is able to ignore because the world she is describing is outside her window. The odd thing is, because we’re so familiar with the way London during the blitz has been portrayed (stagemanaged?) by popular media, Bowen’s depiction can at times be bizzarely less convincing.
It should be pointed out that this is not a work of realism. Robert’s adherence to the Nazis is barely credible as a concrete possibility. Many have wondered, with justification, if Bowen should have had him siding with the Russians. Bowen after all was familiar with Burgess and the Cambridge spies. However this implausible detail doesn’t detract from the novel’s psychological power. It’s not her best novel – I’d award that plaudit to Death of the Heart – but is well worth reading.
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on 8 October 2015
There are some marvellously funny set pieces in this story of wartime London. Chapter 14, where a dysfunctional family debate whether to accept an offer for their house, is so funny it is worth a read just for itself. However, as a whole the book doesn’t cohere and has put to rest the mild interest I’ve had in Elizabeth Bowen since I read ‘The death of the heart’ in my teens. Although there is some lovely writing throughout, much of the dialogue consists of oblique, stagey speeches, the narration is stiffly overworked, and the main plot (an espionage love triangle) doesn’t convince. Sarah Waters, who didn’t live through these times, has done a brilliantly better job of evoking them than Bowen, who did. For my money, the advance in the novelist’s craft between Bowen’s ‘The heat of the day’, published in 1949, and Waters’ ‘The night watch’, published in 2006, is immense.
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on 31 July 2009
"The Heat of the Day" is set in the autumn of 1942, and deals with the triangular relationship between its three main characters, Stella Rodney, Robert Kelway and Harrison. (For most of the book he is referred to only by his surname, although towards the end we learn that his Christian name is also Robert). Stella is a woman in her early forties, briefly married and then divorced about twenty years earlier. She is several years older than her soldier lover, Kelway. Kelway was wounded during the retreat to Dunkirk, and is now working for the army in a non-combatant role which involves access to classified information.

Harrison, an agent with the British secret services, is investigating Kelway, who is suspected of passing military secrets to the enemy. Harrison contacts Stella and informs her that Kelway is suspected of treachery. He, however, is prepared to bargain; he will allow Kelway to remain at liberty provided that Stella becomes his lover.

Of the three main characters, it is Kelway who is potentially the most interesting. He is a man who is prepared not only to betray his country but also to collaborate with a regime as vile as the Nazi one. He has neither been bribed or blackmailed, but has made the decision to assist the enemy out of ideological conviction. Unlike most Nazi sympathisers, however, he does not appear to be motivated by racism or anti-Semitism. He rather believes that the freedom promised by democratic systems of government is an illusion and that it is the unity and strength conferred by obedience to a powerful leader which hold out the greater hope for mankind.

Both the other main characters are also, in their own way, traitors; Harrison in that he puts his own sexual advantage before his duty to his country and Stella in that she is prepared to assist Kelway to escape even after he has confessed his treachery to her. As others have pointed out, this could have been the plot of a Graham Greene thriller, although Elizabeth Bowen's treatment of her subject matter is very different from the way Greene would have handled it. For a start, there is very little mention of religion, something which normally plays an important part in Greene's works. More importantly, although Bowen is interested in exploring the psychology of her characters on the surface level, she does not explore their deeper reasons for their behaviour, something which, I feel sure, would have interested Greene.

I felt that more time should have been spent in exploring the motivations of the main characters; the psychology of a man like Kelway, in particular, could have made for an interesting character study, but this opportunity was neglected. We never really see the process whereby he has come to the conclusion that it is totalitarianism, not democracy, that represents the wave of the future; we are simply presented with his opinions at the end of the book when he confesses his guilt to Stella and attempts to explain his treachery to her. (It is also never explained why he should have developed an admiration for Nazism rather than Communism, which had rather more support in Britain at this period).

On a more immediate level, however, Bowen is very sensitive to the nuances of social behaviour and conversation, which meant that her characters always seem vivid and real. Her prose style is elegant, and she is good at conjuring up a sense of time and place, taking her reader back to a damp, foggy autumn in London and the Home Counties, midway through the Second World War. (The "Heat" in the title is metaphorical- this is not a book about a hot summer). The book did not, however, seem well-structured- too much of the book was taken up with sub-plots with little connection with the main story. Bowen tells how Kelway's family debate whether or not to sell their family home and how Stella's son Roderick inherits a country house in Ireland from a cousin- Bowen was herself from an Irish landowning family- and wastes a good deal of time on Louie, a young woman with only a vague connection to Stella and Harrison, and her friend Connie. Although there were things to enjoy in "The Heat of the Day" it did not impress me as much as "The Death of the Heart", the only other one of Bowen's novels which I have read.
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on 6 February 2015
This is an amazing book. So glad i happened to see it in a list of 100 best novels. When reading it you are IN 1940's London. It is simply superb
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on 31 May 2015
Bowen made me work very hard! Intense and dense writing but worthy of discussion!
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on 3 March 2015
Very pleased with purchase. As described. Many thanks
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on 27 April 2016
Just getting into it.
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on 21 May 2016
all good
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