Nadyne's Reviews > The Hothouse by the East River

The Hothouse by the East River by Muriel Spark
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Apr 12, 2012

really liked it
bookshelves: 1900-s, bluefire, e-books, fiction, ipad, literary-fiction, netgalley, novel, read-in-2012
Read on April 12, 2012 — I own a copy

First sentence: "If it were only true that all's well that ends well, if it were only true."

Last sentence: "She turns to the car, he following her, watching as she moves how she trails her faithful and lithe cloud of unknowing across the pavement."

From In 1944 Paul Hazlett is working in the Compound, a secret government department in Britain, which specialized in propaganda broadcasts over Europe. There he falls in love with Elsa Janovic who is also engaged with black propaganda and psychological warfare in this particular Compound. Other members of the Compound are Miles Bunting, Princes Xavier, Colonel Tylden and several prisoners of war. Among those POWs is Helmut Kiel, a German who has chosen to work for the enemy and is now broadcasting for the Compound. Elsa and Kiel happen to have a love affair and after a few months Kiel is sent back to the prison camp. From there he goes on the air in a prisoners of war exchange-of-greetings programme betraying the identity of the Compound, which was supposed to be an authentic underground German station. Six or seven years after war Kiel dies in prison.
In late spring of 1944 Paul, Elsa and the other members of their intelligence unit gather in a hotel in London having just returned from a mission to the United States. Paul tells his colleagues that he has got a good job waiting for him in America and a place to stay for Elsa and him. The next day they get ready to go back to the country when a V-2 bomb hits them direct just as their train starts pulling out and Paul, Elsa, Princess Xavier, Miles Bunting and Colonel Tylden die.
Paul believes to be the only survivor of the bomb attack although he is dead and after some time he imagines to live together with Elsa in an antiquated apartment by the East River in New York. He is convinced that he has dreamt up Elsa, who now is his wife, their children Pierre and Katerina and Princess Xavier. From a certain point on he is sure that those „imagined“ people have become real due to his imagination. In fact neither of them is real. They have risen from the dead or as in the case of Pierre and Katerina they never really existed. Nevertheless they live among people who are real and alive. They are even considered to be real persons by everyone else. Though there seems to be something wrong with Elsa. Paul realises that she is casting a shadow in the wrong direction; her shadow falls in a different angle to evryone else's shadow no matter from where the light shines upon her. In addition to that Elsa needs to meet he analyst quite often as she is departing from reason from time to time.
She spends her day mainly by sitting by window and looking at the East River.
Approximately 30 years after their death Elsa tells Paul that she has recognised a salesman in a shoe store to be Helmut Kiel. Paul does not believe her as he is certainly put out that Kiel died in prison and knowing that his wife is mad. But after proving her statement and having seen the man himself he believes that this certain person is Helmut Kiel although he ought to look much older. Paul now feels in danger from Kiel because he thinks that Kiel has returned to haunt him in order to take revenge for his imprisonment. Kiel calls himself Mueller and when Elsa goes back to the shoe store to talk to him he denies to be Kiel and claims that he was not yet born in 1944. Paul tells his son Pierre about Kiel but Pierre does not show any interest whereas Katerina is curious about Kiel.

In the end Paul is sitting in a bar watching a group of people consisting of Elsa, Princess Xavier, Kiel and Miles Bunting. When another man heads towards the group he knows that it is Colonel Tylden, another person from the Compound. Then Paul gets up, grasps Elsa's arm and pulls her out of the bar heading towards a night-club. This is when Elsa tells Paul that he also died in the bomb attack in 1944. When they realise that the group are following them they continue their escape through several discos and clubs. In a hotel they happen to arrive at the golden wedding of two old friends and afterwards they visit Pierre and Katerina telling them that they (Pierre and Katerina) do not exist. Finally Paul goes to see his oldest friend once more and at the very end Paul and Elsa stand in front of their apartment block at the East River seeing that the old building is pulled down in order to be replaced by a modern one. Just at that moment Princess Xavier, Kiel, Miles Bunting and Colonel Tylden pass by in a car and take Paul and Elsa back with them so that they can have peace.

I had never read anything written by Muriel Spark, although I knew her by name, so I really didn't know what to expect. But this novella totally came as a surprise. It took me a while to realise that everything was not what it seemed and that there was more to it than remembering a love-story from long ago. I thought this was so intriguing that I couldn't put the book down and read it in one sitting.

I will definitely read more books by Spark, because I like stories with a little unexpected twist, and I am curious to see if her other books are like that also.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by T.D. (new)

T.D. Whittle You might enjoy Loitering with Intent, A Far Cry from Kensington, The Girls of Slender Means, and Momento Mori. Spark has some element of mystery in all of these, as well as her trademark humour, and beautiful writing.

Nadyne td wrote: "You might enjoy Loitering with Intent, A Far Cry from Kensington, The Girls of Slender Means, and Momento Mori. Spark has some element of mystery in all of these, as well as her trademark humour, a..."

Thanks! I will certainly put these on my (ever growing) wishlist.

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