I chose this book completely by accident. (Can I even say I chose it, in that case?) I’d heard many good things about Sarah Bower’s historical novels Needle in the Blood and Book of Love, and decided one day that I’d pick one up at the library. I hadn’t brought my list with me, so I wandered over to the Bs, not quite remembering precisely what I was looking for. I spotted The Death of the Heart (quite similar, really, to Needle in the Blood, you will admit if you think about it), by Elizabeth Bowen, figured I had what I was looking for, and checked it out. When I discovered my error, I decided to read it anyway: Bowen was an important novelist of the 1930s, and since I often read novels from World War I and II, I thought it might be fun to read some from the space between.
The novel tells the story of a couple, Anna and Thomas Quayne, who have a young charge, Thomas’s orphaned half-sister Portia, with them in London for a year. Portia, despite a difficult and peripatetic life in hotels with her impoverished mother, is an innocent for whom the word was invented. Anna and Thomas, by contrast, are the cultured and artificial products of drawing-rooms, finishing-schools, advertising agencies, and illicit love affairs. Enter Eddie, one of the aforementioned love affairs. He falls for Portia, but only superficially, as he does everything else in his shallow cad’s life. When Portia’s socially-awkward candor, her ability to love, and her propensity to believe even the most obvious of social fibs clash with the self-protective Quaynes and the glib, cruel Eddie, matters come to crisis, and healing seems out of reach.
The Death of the Heart had an extremely interesting premise. Bowen lets you see all of Portia’s beautiful purity, but also the degree to which some social comfort is derived by not saying exactly what you mean in every context. She lets you see Anna’s slyness and emptiness, but also the society that created her in that image. The book is well-written (despite some oddly dated vocabulary, such as the often-repeated word “goofy,”) and well-characterized. I did think there were several philosophical passages that could have been cut, and I also thought that Bowen had a nasty trick of telling rather than showing. There was one passage in which she explained at length exactly what the squalor of Eddie’s flat told us about him, for instance, rather than letting us surmise it for ourselves. It made me lose interest in a scene that could have been riveting.
On the whole, I would recommend this book, though I think perhaps Bowen was trying a little too hard to be Edith Wharton or Henry James, which she isn’t. Nor is she even Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene (who at least injected some humor into their deepest and richest work.) For this style and era, however, it was enjoyable, and often spoke the truth about speaking the truth.