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The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen

The Heat of the Day (1948)

by Elizabeth Bowen

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This novel follows the lives of two women and two men living in London during the war. The characters are people who have not been evacuated and they remain in the city for work, or lack of anywhere else to live. The main character, Stella, is a widow who has a son in the army. She is seeing Robert, a wounded Dunkirk evacuee who is working in The War Office. Harrison (whose first name we do not learn until near the end of the book) is a strange person who likes to imply that he is somehow involved in counter-espionage. Louie is a factory worker whose husband is off fighting in the war and she finds herself bored and wandering London wondering what to do and what to think. Her character is easily led and rather flighty.

“The Heat of the Day” gives the reader a taste of what it was like for ordinary people living in blitz-torn London. The people remaining in the city are portrayed as having a high level of comradery in which everybody was friends but they never got too close because they knew their friend of tonight might not be around tomorrow after the nighttime air-raids.

There is a lot of internal consideration of feelings and convoluted thinking about that the other person meant by their words or actions, or even lack of words.

The story points of view are those of Stella and Louie, the main female characters. Knowing Elizabeth Bowen’s background I can see she identified with Stella. The scenes in which Stella visits an inherited stately home in Ireland are obviously informed by Bowen’s own family seat, Bowen’s Court, in Farahy, County Cork, which she visited frequently as a child and which she inherited in 1930.

Louie is a rather two dimensional character. She is portrayed as not having a lot of wit. I think her character suffers from Bowen’s attempting to write a working class character from a rather elite status.

Strong points in this book include the explanation, through Louie’s reading and interpretation of newspapers, of how the news media is used to manipulate the thoughts of the masses, especially at a time of national emergency. This element is reminiscent of current times with multimedia channels being used to influence political thought and to lead the masses by the nose. I was amazed at how sharp this element was.

I shan’t discuss the plot as the environment in which it takes place, and the thoughts and emotions of the people involved, are more important in this book than who did what and when. ( )
  pgmcc | Feb 8, 2019 |
As 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.
Read more of my book reviews at http://www.sandradanby.com/book-reviews-a-z/ ( )
  Sandradan1 | Apr 25, 2018 |
Odd book - densely written combination of Graham Greene and Henry James. Some of it was so oblique I could practically feel the question mark rising in a bubble over my head. And yet, there was something about the novel that was so beautiful. I need time to ponder. ( )
  laurenbufferd | Nov 14, 2016 |
One of those books that is so beautifully written that even though it's a bit on the depressing side, it still uplifts. Poignant tale of guilt/betrayal and second love. ( )
1 vote dbsovereign | Jan 26, 2016 |
This was a book that was very hard to get into in the beginning. Bowen's language is very flowery and she takes a long time to say anything and she has endless descriptions. After getting used to her writing, I did, however, find the characters interesting and the plot was fascinating. There is a real sense of feeling what it was like in London as the bombs were dropped on the city. I actually look forward to reading another of her novels and I would recommend this book to those who are interested in London during World War II. ( )
  EadieB | Jan 19, 2016 |
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To Charles Ritchie
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That Sunday, from six o'clock in the evening, it was a Viennese orchestra that played.
The very soil of the city at this time seemed to generate more strength: in parks the outsize dahlias, velvet and wine, and the trees on which each vein in each yellow leaf stretched out perfect against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385721285, Paperback)

In The Heat of the Day, Elizabeth Bowen brilliantly recreates the tense and dangerous atmosphere of London during the bombing raids of World War II.

Many people have fled the city, and those who stayed behind find themselves thrown together in an odd intimacy born of crisis. Stella Rodney is one of those who chose to stay. But for her, the sense of impending catastrophe becomes acutely personal when she discovers that her lover, Robert, is suspected of selling secrets to the enemy, and that the man who is following him wants Stella herself as the price of his silence. Caught between these two men, not sure whom to believe, Stella finds her world crumbling as she learns how little we can truly know of those around us.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:19:43 -0400)

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