You would expect a novel set in London during the Blitz and the throes of the Second World War to be precisely about just that, the Blitz and the horror of the war years. You would however, be entirely wrong. The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen is no more about the Second World War, than Wuthering Heights is about life in 19th century Yorkshire. As ridiculous as that sounds, allow me to explain…by no means is the backdrop of the war completely irrelevant to the narrative in The Heat of the Day, but ultimately it is not what should be taken away from the novel. To be clear, if you are looking for a “war novel”, this is not for you and you will be disappointed.
So if it’s not “about” the war, then what exactly is going on in Bowen’s 1948 novel?…
It is wartime London, and the carelessness of people with no future flows through the evening air. Stella discovers that her lover Robert is suspected of selling information to the enemy. Harrison, the British intelligence agent on his trail, wants to bargain, the price for his silence being Stella herself. Caught between two men and unsure who she can trust, the flimsy structures of Stella’s life begin to crumble (Vintage Classics, 1998).
Cue my second disclaimer, what might sound like a romance or complicated love triangle is in fact not a romance. I repeat, The Heat of the Day is not a story about love! What it is about however is espionage, trust and perhaps most importantly, identities in crisis.
No one is ever quite what they seem in the novel, and the strange dualities of the characters, almost undoubtedly a result of their profession, are reflected in the minutest of details. Take for example Stella’s flat; it is not truly a home but merely a place in which she is “surrounded by somebody else’s irreproachable taste […] to those who were not to know this room was not her own it expressed her unexceptionally but wrongly”. Even Roderick, Stella’s own son, remarks that the flat “did not look like a home; but it looked like something – possibly a story”, and that in Holme Dene “everything can be shifted, lock, stock, and barrel…like touring scenery from theatre to theatre. Reassemble it anywhere: you get the same illusion”. Even the characters’ possessions become strangely personified and inverted, “the actual fire’s electric elements, vertical hot set lips, grinned away at the end of the room. At the half-shadow level…the photographs were two dark unliving squares”.
This feeling of falsehood is unsettling and underlies the entire novel. It is amplified in the furniture, by the muted expressions and actions of the characters, and in Bowen’s immaculate attention to detail. And it is this attention to detail that ultimately brings the novel to life; the characters are intense, unlikable and in many ways hollow, the pace is slow and brooding (think Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), and the narrative unlikely to shock but oddly thrilling all the same.
Is it worth reading? Absolutely. Is it everyone’s cup of tea. Absolutely not.