Lisa's Reviews > The Heat Of The Day

The Heat Of The Day by Elizabeth Bowen
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really liked it
bookshelves: c20th, britain, 1001-books-read, war

There are six novels by Elizabeth Bowen listed in the 2006 edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. a distinction awarded to no other woman writer of the 20th century except for Iris Murdoch and Virginia Woolf (and not too many men either). Bowen’s listed novels are, in order of publication
•The Last September (1929);
•To the North (1932);
•The House in Paris (1935);
•The Heat of the Day (1949);
•A World of Love (1955); and
•Eva Trout (1968) (This one was nominated for the Booker in 1970, but it baffled me when I read it in 2005 which put me off Bowen a bit. I see now that 1001 Books calls it ‘elusive’ and ‘adrift from the shores of fictional realism’ so perhaps I was not alone).

But even though it is written in a modernist style, The Heat of the Day is only too realistic. It is Elizabeth Bowen’s most celebrated novel and it’s brilliant. As the introduction by Roy Foster tells us, it was written even as the bombs were still falling in 1944 with completed chapters sent out of London for safe-keeping. The sense of impending catastrophe includes fearing on top of everything else that the hard-won pages of a novel might not survive the next torrent of bombs. My parents lived through that insecurity, my father having been bombed out of his London home when he was a child. Amongst all the losses – of friends, colleagues and loved ones; of family homes, cherished institutions and historic buildings; and of irreplaceable cultural artefacts – a half-finished novel might not seem so important to some, and yet if these chapters had been lost to the doodlebugs of 1944, (after the Allied Landings), a great novel would have been lost…

The Heat of the Day begins with an image that is arresting for those of us reading it decades later. It is of an outdoor concert in wartime London in September 1942 when war had made them idolize day and summer; night and autumn were enemies. The worst of the Blitz is over by 1942, but the Blackout is still in force and the war is far from over even though turning points of the war occur during the two years of the novel. The audience at the concert are stoic, but for many to be sitting packed among other people was better than walking about alone. The novel is imbued with this sense of life on the edge; of mourning for the lost, of evil just 22km away across the channel in France, and of the ever-present likelihood of imminent death or loss of loved ones. Even in 1942 the air the characters breathe is dusty with the aftermath of the Blitz.

The concert in the park is also notable for something else. It is attended by ‘all sorts’, not the rarefied crowds one might expect at a Covent Garden concert. Among the exiled foreigners – refugees and Czech soldiers, some of whom were so intimate with the music you could feel them anticipate every note – there are shabby Londoners. Factory-worker Louie Lewis is there in her imitation camel-hair coat, her work-roughened hands and her never-depilated bare legs. Her presence at this concert signals a further shift in the cultural and social superiority of the English upper class, and her subsequent naïve reaction to meeting, and being impressed by the ‘refined’ Stella Rodney is challenged by events later on in the novel.

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Reading Progress

December 27, 2010 – Shelved
March 1, 2016 – Started Reading
March 3, 2016 –
page 42
12.77% "This is slow reading, I'm having to get used to her style."
March 8, 2016 –
page 111
March 11, 2016 –
page 182
55.32% "I am loving this book!"
March 12, 2016 – Finished Reading

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Mark Great review, Lisa. I love this novel as it so accurately portrays the fear of death and the immediacy of life in war damaged London, hammered by the Blitz. As you say 'the fluidity of social status' brought an end to old norms and people (like my Mother) were suddenly adrift like ships that had slipped their moorings, falling for the charms of the brave airman in uniform, adding greater colour but unbelievable complexity, to their innocent lives.

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