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The Heat of the Day Paperback – July 9, 2002
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"Imagine a Graham Greene thriller projected through the sensibility of Virginia Woolf." —The Atlantic Monthly
“[Bowen] startles us by sheer originality of mind and boldness of sensibility into seeking our world afresh. . . . Out of the plainest things--the drawing of a curtain--she can make something electric and urgent." --V. S. Pritchett
"Dense as a poem with symbol and suggestion. . . . The work of a writer [of] rich and winning gifts." —Time
"Miss Bowen [has] power to evoke, suggest and explore down oblique and little-frequented avenues the mysterious centers of human conduct." --The New York Times
From the Inside Flap
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.
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Top Customer Reviews
"Most of all the dead, from mortuaries, from under cataracts of rubble, made their anonymous presence -- not as today's dead but as yesterday's living -- felt through London. Uncounted, they continued to move in shoals through the city day, pervading everything to be seen or heard or felt with their torn-off senses, drawing on this tomorrow they had expected -- for death cannot be so sudden as all that."
-- or the living:
"The very temper of pleasures lay in their chanciness, in the canvaslike impermanence of their settings, in their being off-time -- to and fro between bars and grills, clubs and each other's places moved the little shoal through the noisy nights. Faces came and went. There was a diffused gallantry in the atmosphere, an unmarriedness: it came to be rumored […] that everybody in London was in love."
Stella Rodney, Bowen's protagonist, a divorced woman approaching 40, is certainly in love, and has been for the past two years. She met Robert Kelway, a veteran of Dunkirk now working at the War Office, at the beginning of the bombing in 1940; it is now 1942. I was struck, though, by how long Bowen takes to introduce us to Kelway. Like Graham Greene would do in his own great wartime romance novel, THE END OF THE AFFAIR, published three years after Bowen's in 1951, she begins when the relationship is already under threat: Stella gets a visit from a mysterious man called Harrison who tells her that Robert is a spy, but appears to be willing to trade Stella's love for his silence. It is not just a matter of structure: Harrison is a quintessential Greene character, and the topic of spy and counterspy is Greene's bread and butter -- but it sits uneasily on Bowen's table.
At my first reading, I was greatly influenced by the quotation from The Atlantic Monthly printed prominently on the gorgeous front cover: "Imagine a Graham Greene thriller projected through the sensibility of Virginia Woolf." I found myself concentrating on the first part of this comparison, largely due to the apparent similarity of subject-matter, But the thriller aspect of Bowen's novel simply does not work: the many episodes featuring other characters dilute the tension, and the climax is more psychological than physical. This time, inspired by a new respect for Bowen gained from reading the Feigel, I came to the novel with the assumption that Bowen knew exactly what she was doing; if she did not succeed in writing a Graham Greene thriller, it was simply because she had no intention of doing so. The Virginia Woolf comparison, though, is a good one; in this light, the book shines triumphantly.
It can't only have been the London setting that made me think of MRS DALLOWAY, although Bowen's descriptions of that city are eminently worthy of Woolf. The opening chapter, for example, describing an open-air concert in Regent's Park is enthralling in its eye for detail and ear for the cadence of the English language. Bowen can do this equally well with an underground after-hours club, or the back yards of houses seen from a crawling train, and she makes a point of including lower- or lower-middle class characters (though not with equal success). The impression I take away is exactly the same as with MRS DALLOWAY -- of the TOTALITY of life: of all the lives being led at the same time in this wartime city; of an individual's life being defined not merely by its peak moments but through childhood, family, friends, and future; even the private country that lovers inhabit in their togetherness is both out of the world and in it. "They were not alone, nor had they been from the start, from the start of love," writes Bowen when Stella and Robert sit down to a late supper; "their time sat in the third place at their table." Near the end of the novel, Stella thinks back on their love, in a passage that makes me think of Woolf or the ending of James Joyce's story "The Dead," and that is the very essence of totality:
"She had trodden every inch of the country with him, not perhaps least when she was alone. Of that country, she did not know how much was place, how much was time. She thought of leaves of autumn crisply being swept up, that crystal ruined London morning when she had woken to his face; she saw street after street facing into evening after evening, the sheen of spring light running on the water towards the bridges on which one stood, the vulnerable eyes of Louie stupidly carrying sky about in them, the raw earth lip of Cousin Francis's grave and the pink-stamened flowers of that day alight on the chestnuts in May gloom, the asphalt pathway near Roderick's camp thrust up and cracked by the swell of ground, mapped by seeded grass…."
"Arrival of shades in Hades, the new dead scanned dubiously by the older, she thought that she could have thought;"
Ms Bowen thinks that she could have thought far too many things in this book, especially, here, ones already thought of by T.S. Eliot in his Wasteland. But, as I say, this muddiness is set off by gems like this, describing two lovers together:
"No, there is no such thing as being alone together. Daylight moves round the walls; night rings the changes of its intensity; everything is on its way to somewhere else - there is the presence of movement, however unheeding in their trance two might try to stay."
Lovely, perfect! - But such passages are seldom encountered amidst all the absurdly worded cerebration (a la Woolf) that makes this novel neither a love story nor a spy story, much less a brilliant combination of the two.
But one feels somehow that an A for effort is due here. The book is a failure that would simply not be allowed to fail in today's commercialised publishing world. So, three stars. For those not afraid of Virginia Woolf - She makes me shudder - you've found a kindred spirit!