Elizabeth Bowen’s ‘The Heat of the Day’ has strong echoes of Graham Greene’s ‘The End of the Affair’. It is set in London during the second world war, where the threat of sudden death from the Blitz leads to people to live their lives with a sense of urgency. Bowen’s evocation of life in London during this period is one of the strongest features of this otherwise flawed novel:
“The night behind and the night to come met across every noon in an arch of strain”. (10)
“Now down a shaft of anticipating silence the bomb swung whistling”. (114)
“Overhead, an enemy plane had been dragging, drumming slowly round in the pool of night, drawing up bursts of gunfire–nosing, pausing, turning, fascinated to the point for its intent. The barrage banged, coughed, retched; in here the lights in the mirrors rocked. Now down a shaft of anticipating silence the bomb swung whistling. With the shock of detonation, still to be heard, four walls of in here yawped in then bellied out; bottles danced on glass; a distortion ran through the view. The detonation dulled off into the cataracting roar of a split building: direct hit, somewhere else.”
Bowen’s language, and in particular her sentence construction, is interesting. At first you wonder whether English is her first language, given how unnatural some sentences sound:
“The restaurant at which they met most often was this morning, he was sorry to tell her, closed.”(115)
Would not that sentence have flowed more naturally with the words “was” and “closed” together, for example
“The restaurant at which they met most often was closed this morning, he was sorry to tell her” or
“The restaurant at which they met most often, he was sorry to tell her, was closed.” Or even
“He was sorry to tell her that the restaurant at which they met most often was closed”
But it is a fair assumption that writers do things like this for a reason. In this case I am sure that the impact this slightly awkward sentence construction had on me, which was to read the sentence twice or more, was deliberate. This technique is intended to keep the reader focussed, preventing them from reading passively. I have a vivid memory of Kingsley Amis doing this in a novel of his which I haven’t read for a long time, but must revisit, ‘The Green Man’. Anthony Burgess does the same thing in one of his Enderby novels when he brilliantly constructs a sentence in which the word “onions” is repeated four times, but which remains syntactically correct. Coming back to ‘The Heat of the Day’ for a moment, Bowen also conveys the hesitancy of her character with this technique.
Probably the weakest, least interesting aspect of the novel is the contrived, unconvincing, plot. Stella Rodney, a middle-aged woman who works for the government, is propositioned by Harrison, a shadowy figure who seems to be in love with her. Harrison tells Stella that her boyfriend/lover, Robert Kelway is spying for Germans. He promises not to report Robert if she becomes his lover. This sordid proposition forms the core of the narrative – Stella cannot decide whether to take Harrison seriously or not, so extraordinary is his proposal. While she thinks it over, we are told in flashback of the first time she met Harrison, at the funeral of a relative who has left his substantial property in Ireland to her son, Roderick, who is now in the Army. Eventually, after a trip to the estate in Ireland, Stella asks Robert about Harrison’s accusations – he of course denies the accusation, and then proposes to her. However, we later find out that the accusation is true – Robert is a German spy, even though he was wounded at Dunkirk. He confesses all to Stella, and in an attempt to escape from her flat falls from the roof and is killed – the novel deliberately leaves it ambiguous as to whether this is an accident or suicide. The novel then quickly draws to a close with an overview of the next few years of the war and a fast forward summary of the lives of the main characters. The subplot involving a working class girl, Louie, is horribly patronizing – I was not sure if Louie was intended as comic relief in contrast to the well bred Mrs Rodney, but the tone of these scenes was unconvincing.
Bowen is a good stylist (for example, this sentence jumped out at me ““Vegetables of the politer kind packed the curves of crescent and the points of stars” (125)), although occasionally her writing is overblown. But the plot is weak – the reasons for Kelway spying for the Germans are unconvincing, and his behaviour when he is exposed – going to his family home for a long and pointless (and possibly intended as comic?) discussion about its sale is bizarre. The elusive Harrison is equally unconvincing. His interest in a relationship with Stella, for which he is prepared to turn a blind eye to Robert’s spying, surely another form of treason, is pursued in a very lacklustre way – having raised the question with her he then leaves her alone for several weeks to mull it over. Bowen seems to recognise this weakness when she writes:
“By the rules of fiction, with which life to be credible must comply, he was as a character “impossible” – each time they met, for instance, he showed no shred or trace of having been continuous since they last met.”
The Vintage classic edition I read this in quotes the Los Angeles Times as describing this novel as “intelligent noir” and that it “fills the reader’s heart with dread”. I thought it was entirely lacking in suspense or menace, but the fact that this is the best quote they could find about the novel probably tells its own story.