Elizabeth Bowen: The Heat of the Day (1948) Literature and War Readalong March 2013

The Heat of The Day

Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day introduces us to London during WWII. The novel starts on a Sunday in 1942 and ends exactly two years later. London is a ghostly city. Many houses are but ruins, other’s are abandoned. People’s lives have changed, relationships are formed much more quickly but they end as abruptly too. Social differences become smaller, the society is less strict as a whole. Everything is perceived more intensely. The seasons, the hours of the day, the light. The beauty and spookiness of the time is captured in evocative passages like the one below.

Out of the mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was drawn fine. . . . The diversion of traffic out of blocked main thoroughfares into byways, the unstopping phantasmagoric streaming of lorries, buses, vans, drays, taxis past modest windows and quiet doorways set up an overpowering sense of London’s organic power–somewhere here was a source from which heavy motion boiled, surged and, not to be damned up, forced itself new channels.

The very soil of the city at this time seemed to generate more strength: in parks the outsize dahlias, velvet and wine, and the trees on which each vein in each yellow leaf stretched out perfect against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour. Parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs–drifts of leaves in the empty deck chairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes–presented, between the railings which girt them, mirages of repose. All this was beheld each morning more light-headedly: sleeplessness disembodied the lookers-on.

In reality there were no holidays; few were free however light-headedly to wander. The night behind and the night to come met across every noon in an arch of strain. To work or think was to ache. In offices, factories, ministries, shops, kitchens the hot yellow sands of each afternoon ran out slowly; fatigue was the one reality. You dared not envisage sleep.

The main story centers on Stella, her lover Robert, her son Roderick and the intelligence agent Harrison. The side story involves two girls, Louie and Connie. It’s a peculiar story. Harrison visits Stella one night and tells her that Robert is a spy working for the Nazis. Harrison could protect him to some extent if Stella was willing to become his lover.

It’s hard to imagine what it would feel like to hear something like this about the man you love. Stella doubts it at first but Harrison has proof and after a few months she accepts it and confronts Robert.

I’m not exactly sure why Elizabeth Bowen chose this topic or why she chose to paint the portrait of a likable Nazi spy. I didn’t feel this was believable at all.

If you put the story aside and concentrate on other elements, you will find an excellent description of wartime London. I liked the many side stories far more than the main story as such. The female characters are all interesting. There is Stella who was perceived as a fallen woman as it was said she had walked out on her husband. Nettie, the wife of a distant Irish uncle lives in a home for mentally ill patients but is perfectly fine. Louie sleeps with various men, to feel closer to her husband who is stationed in India. The status of women has changed a lot at the time, the society is less rigid, many could finally break free,

Robert, although far less of a character than most women in this novel, is interesting because he symbolizes the wounded men who came back after Dunkirk, unfit for future service. Many of these men must have been very bitter. I’m not sure though that an experience like this would have pushed many to become Nazi spies.

All in all this was a disjointed reading experience. I liked the atmosphere and the mood, didn’t care for the story and often had the feeling Elizabeth Bowen cannot write novels. As much as I liked her shorter prose and could forgive her for many convoluted sentences, in this book she went too far. According to Glendinning’s biography, her editor changed many sentences and told her many times to work on them. It’s not that they are long – long sentences hardly bother you when you read German or French literature – but the structure is weird. Let me give you a few examples.

In the street below, not so much a step as the semi-stumble of someone after long standing shifting his position could be, for the fist time by her, heard.

Or her way to break up dialogue and add long complicated tags

“This is certainly,” she agreed, with the affability of extreme disdain, “rather a point.”

This one is hilarious

“Absolutely,” he said with fervour, “not! Though you know I do wish I knew what’s rattled you.”

While I would still recommend to read The Heat of the Day for many different elements, I’m not so keen on reading another of her novels soon unless someone tells me there is one in which the sentences are not as contorted. For the time being I’ll stick to the short stories.

Other reviews

Anna (Diary of an Eccentric)

Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

TBM (50 Year Project)


The Heat of the Day was the third book in the Literature and War Readalong 2013. The next is the WWI novel The Wars by Canadian writer Timothy Findley. Discussion starts on April 29, 2013. Further information on the Literature and War Readalong, including the book blurbs can be found here.

Anna Raverat: Signs of Life (2012)


Ten years ago, Rachel had an affair. It left her life in pieces. Now, writing at her window, she tries to put those pieces together again. She has her memories, recollections of dreams, and her old yellow notebook. More than anything, she wants to be honest. Rachel knows that her memory is patchy and her notebook incomplete. But there is something else. Something terrible happened to her lover. Her account is hypnotic, delicate, disquieting and bold. But is she telling us the truth?

A review on Litlove’s blog a few weeks ago led me to Anna Raverat’s novel Signs of Life. I’m glad I discovered it, I liked it very much,

Ten years ago Rachel had a disastrous love affair. She was in a relationship with Johnny, content and maybe a bit bored. Carl was new in Rachel’s company. She wasn’t really attracted, Johnny was far more handsome, but maybe she sensed Carl was a “bad boy”, maybe she wanted to escape routine. One evening they kiss and from there they slide into a passionate affair, even though Rachel doesn’t really want that.

We know from the beginning that things go horribly wrong in the end but we don’t know what happened. Even Rachel doesn’t know everything. At the end of the affair she has a breakdown. She is hospitalised; trauma, stress and medication blur everything. Now, ten years later, she decides to write down the whole story, tries to make sense.

The story Rachel tries to write down is fragmented because her memories of what happened ten years ago are fragmented. And that leads us straight to one of the major topics of this novel. How does memory work?

Perhaps it never did snow that August in Vermont; perhaps there never were flurries in the night wind, and maybe no-one else felt the ground hardening and summer already dead even as we pretended to bask in it, but that was how it felt to me, and it might as well have snowed, could have snowed, did snow. Joan Didion

Might as well have; could have; did. The movement from possibility to certainty in the sentence is exactly how it works in the head; this is how imagination merges with memory, how dreams get confused with facts; why reality sometimes feels so unreal. The extract is from Joan Didion’s On Keeping a Notebook. It unlocked my own imagination; something in me resonated strongly and I wanted to use that, the feeling of recognition, almost of ownership, when you read something and think, that’s exactly the way I feel! And a feeling of entitlement slips in. I started with her line, took some words of, pegged others on – I wanted to absorb the sentence fully, make my own version.

The narration jumps back and forth in time, and precisely this fragmentation is what I liked so much. We don’t only discover a story, we discover how memory works. How things are altered, embellished, imagined.

The result is authentic. We take part in discovering the truth. Rachel took notes during the affair but she left out a lot. Reading was and is important to her. The books and stories she reads influence the way she perceives what happens. The final tale she tells is a patchwork made of different material.

Signs of Life is fascinating and gripping at the same time.  The end was to some extent what I had expected but still surprising enough to be memorable. And we wonder whether Rachel is not after all a very unreliable narrator.

I’m often annoyed by book covers so it’s worth mentioning what a great exception this cover is. It’s rare that a cover fits a book so well. How to better represent a fragmented story than by using a collage of photos that illustrate various moments in the book. The only pictures missing here are that of a cat and of a woman writing.

Apart from depicting how memory works, Signs of Life is an excellent psychological study. It shows how some choices may alter our lives forever and that we are not always fully in charge. Intense emotions may push us to do things we don’t want to do and we may find that our life has fallen apart, is shattered and broken.

Some Short Stories by Elizabeth Bowen – Mrs Windermere – The Demon Lover – A Day in the Dark


In the foreword to her Elizabeth Bowen biography, Elizabeth Glendinning names what she thinks are Elizabeth Bowen’s best short stories:

The Disinherited

A Summer Night

Mysterious Kôr

The Happy Autumn Fields

Ivy Gripped the Steps

A Day in the Dark

 Mysterious Kôr is the first story I read by Bowen and it’s really an amazing story. I read and reviewed Summer Night last year. Unlike so many other short stories I’ve read over the course of a year it has stayed with me or, to be more precise, it’s atmosphere and imagery have stayed with me. The story is somewhat blurred by now. For this year’s Irish Short Story Month I decided to read three stories, each belonging to another chapter in the Collected Stories. Mrs Windermere is among the first stories. The Demon Lover is one of the wartime stories and A Day in the Dark is a post-war story.

When you read Bowen you will always find similarities in all of her stories whether she wrote them early in her career or later. The three stories I’ve read are very different but in each you will find lush atmospherical descriptions and a strong emphasis on emotions and mood. There is also an element of mystery in all three of them. A lot is only hinted at, remains a secret. A Day in the Dark, the most complex of these stories adds something new. It has a strong  metafictional element.

Mrs Windermere is the most playful of the three stories. The mystery lies in the character of Mrs Windermere, an elderly independent single woman who meets a young married woman in the streets. They spent some time together in Italy. The young woman is fascinated and intimidated by Mrs Windermere. Mrs Windermere seems to see through people, reads their lives in the palms of their hands. Not only is she very outspoken, she seems to question the way the young woman lives. Why having married if you could have been free? is what she seems to ask. She senses that the young woman’s life is missing something and tempts her to explore something new, maybe have an affair. A very feminist story for its time.

The Demon Lover combines a ghost story with the depiction of war-time London. The result is uncanny. Imagine there is a war and you flee the city, leaving everything behind; your house, your possessions. One afternoon you’re back in London and go to your abandoned house to pick up some things. The house has a ghostly feel, nobody has been there for a long time and it is surrounded by house ruins and other abandoned places. You go from room to room as if you were walking not only through your house but through the life you’ve left behind. And suddenly, someone from you distant past reappears.

After having read The Demon Lover I understand why all of Bowen’s war-time stories set in London are either ghost stories or stories with a ghostly feel. Those abandoned houses exude a great loneliness and seem to be creatures waiting for their life to resume.

The narrator of A Day in the Dark looks back on her teenage years and tells a story that took place one afternoon, a long time ago. She was a young girl, living with her uncle. She has a crush on him and their relationship is very close. It’s never said that they are having an affair but the possibility of it is palpable. On that afternoon she visits a rich woman. She has to give her back magazines her uncle has borrowed. The woman hints at things the young girl doesn’t understand.

It’s a very complex, and multilayered story. The characters are revealed through small hints and descriptions. The way it is written is meta-fictional as the narrator intrudes, points out what could have been described and remembered otherwise.

A Day in the Dark is a very dense and mysterious story. Reading it was like eating an exotic fruit for the first time. It’s nice but so strange that one wonders continuously whether one really likes it and why and tries to put into words how it tastes. It’s one of those short stories you could read again and again and would still have unanswered questions, new possible interpretations. I loved it.

This post is a contribution to Mel’s Irish Short Story Month.

Readalong – Grande Sertão:Veredas – The Devil to Pay in the Backlands by João Guimarães Rosa


Last year Richard (Caravana de recuerdos) mentioned João Guimarães Rosa’s novel Grande Sertão (1956) on his blog and since I wasn’t familiar with the book but saw it was called a Brazilian Ulysses, I had to get it. I bought what seems to have been one of the last copies available in German. Sure, I could have bought it in French or English but for some reasons, I thought German might be just as good. After having read the first ten pages I think I might have been wrong. Grande Sertão is a groundbreaking work of Brazilian literature and much of that comes from the fact that it uses oral traditions to create something new. It’s what is called “Oralisierung” in German. (I couldn’t find the quivalent in English.Would it be “Oralization”?) Obvioulsy it is meant to sound like a long monologue of someone using a not very sophisticated but colorful spoken language. And that’s where I have a problem. The spoken German rendered in the translation doesn’t sound like spoken German but it seems to mimic the Brazilian. I hope I’ll get used to it.

Despite my reservations regarding the German translation, I think this is a very interesting book and when I saw that Richard (Caravana de recuerdos), Rise (in lieu of a field guide), Miguel (St. Orberose) and Scott (seraillon) co-host a readalong of the book in May I signed up immediately. At the moment there are still more hosts than participants, so you might want to consider rebalancing that a bit and sign up as well. It might not be easy to find a copy but maybe the one or the other already has one somewhere and was just waiting for the right moment. And there are libraries who might have it too.

Here’s the synopsis on wikipedia

If you’d like to sign up. Here are the intros of the hosts:





The discussion takes place during the last week of May 2013.

Do you know the novel? Will you join?

Helen Garner: The Spare Room (2008)


Helen Garner’s The Spare Room was one of the books I found at work. I started it immediately and finished it almost in one sitting. Garner has chosen a difficult topic and written about it beautifully. Despite the sad topic, it’s an uplifting book.

Helen’s friend Nicola is very ill. She has stage four metastatic cancer. This means it’s terminal. Chances that she will recover are less than minimal. Looking for a miracle cure she asks her friend if she can stay with her in Melbourne for three weeks. Helen doesn’t know any details. She doesn’t know that Nicola is in denial. She just wants to help her friend and accepts.

Nicola always used to believe in alternative medicine. But what works for all sorts of ailments, does not work for terminal cancer. Many late stage cancer patients cannot accept the fact that they are dying which makes them an easy prey for frauds and con men. The clinic Nicola will visit during her stay is not much different. The cure has no value but terrible side effects. And it costs a fortune. What Nicola would really need is palliative care but she thinks getting palliative care will speed up her death.

Caring for her friend is beyond Helen’s strengths. Like Nicola, she is over 60 and washing sweaty bed sheets every night, seeing her friend in horrible pain and denial sucks all her energy from her.

“It’s just that in my work,” said Carmel, “I’ve learnt that there are people who never, ever face the fact that death’s coming to them. They go on fighting right up to their last breath.” She paused. “And it is one way of doing it.”

This must sound like a bleak story but it’s not. It’s honest and even funny, stripped of everything but the bare reality. The worst part is that the two women have to live a fake relationship as Nicola doesn’t want to accept she will not be cured. She smiles constantly, pretending everything is alright. She doesn’t want to feel her emotions and in doing so triggers them in others. All those who care for her feel desperate, sad and angry while she keeps on grinning.

When Helen is at the end of her strength, she confronts her demonstrating that sometimes you really have to be cruel to be kind. When they finally speak openly about the fake cure and the probability that Nicola will die, things get better and they are able to live moments of true friendship again.

Oh, I loved her for the way she made me laugh. She was the least self-important person I knew, the kindest, the least bitchy. I couldn’t imagine the world without her.

I devoured this book. Its spare prose is beautiful. Its honesty was soothing.

I’ve seen this happen quite a few times around me. People get very ill, terminally ill but until the last moment they deny it. No real conversations are possible and what little time is left is spent chasing a miracle cure.

But Garner goes one step further. She also writes about the caregiver and how incredibly strong you must be to perform the tasks which are needed. How much you may come to hate the person who depends on you because it’s so tiring and stressful.

The Spare Room is astonishing because it’s so well written and manages to be ultimately uplifting through its gentle humour, honesty and in  showing what true friendship can achieve.

This review is my first contribution to the Aussie Author Challenge 2013


We all know that search engines work in mysterious ways that’s why I add this caveat: 

For anyone reading this who is afflicted by cancer or has friends or family who are ill, please be aware, that the case in this book is not just a simple case. It’s a stage four metastatic cancer. I’m saying this because I don’t want to rob anyone of their hope. Many cancer patients, especially when their illness has been discovered early on, can be cured, notably when the tumour is operable. There are but a few types like the very aggressive malignant glioblastoma multiforme which leave you with hardly any chance.

Bookish Luck


Someone at work had the idea to install a corner for abandoned books in the coffee area. People who want to get rid of their books can leave them on some shelves. Of course I had to have a look. Within a few days the shelves were crowded. Surprisingly there were more unread than read books. Most of the books which showed signs of having been read before were by authors I’m not interest in but there were quite a few brand new copies of books I had wanted to buy anyway or which looked interesting. So over the last weeks I’ve been adopting quite a few of them.

Here’s the booty:


Don DeLillo – Underworld

Fatal Eggs

Mikhail Bulgakow – The Fatal Eggs

Winter Birds

Jim Grimsley – Winter Birds


Helen Garner – The Spare Room


Ian McEwan – Saturday


Carol Shields Swann


Sue Grafton  – V is for Vengeance


Nicci Gerrard – The Moment You Were Gone

I think I was very lucky.

While I’ve never heard of Jim Grimsley before, I’ve already started Helen Garner’s  The Spare Room which had been on my wish list anyway. I was so pleased to find it. I absolutely love it and will review it shortly. If it wasn’t so bulky, I’d be tempted to start Underworld next.

Do you know the books? Have you read any of them?

Carrie Vaughn: Kitty and the Midnight Hour (2005)

kitty 1

As regular readers of this blog know, I have a weakness for urban fantasy and I like to start new series. Often I stop reading them after volume 2 or 3 but that doesn’t matter much.

I’ve read a lot of good things about Carrie Vaughn’s  Kitty Norville series and thought I give it a try and read the first book in the series Kitty and the Midnight Hour. I didn’t regret it, it’s a breezy, fun read with a lot of elements which are typical in urban fantasy or paranormal crime but also infused with a nice dose of originality.

Kitty has two important features. She’s a radio DJ and she is a werewolf. Usually she works the night or rather the midnight shift at the radio station. It isn’t the most popular show until she has the uncanny idea to transform it in a late-night advice show for supernatural beings. Who would have thought that there are so many vampires, werewolves, shape shifters and what not in Denver? And that they all are in need of advice?

Kitty is still a young werewolf and as such at the bottom of the pack. Her new show and subsequent success upset the pack dynamics considerably and soon she must fear for her life. Someone is after her and wants her dead. On top of that there is a killer on the loose. A rogue werewolf who kills randomly.

While I wouldn’t say this is as well written as Kelley Armstrong’s’ truly great series, it’s a fun read. Kitty is very smart and witty and a lot of cultural references will even appeal to the more sophisticated reader. I also liked that Kitty didn’t just fit in but actively fought pack dynamics which demand that she, as the youngest female member, has to please the alpha males whenever they like. Kitty is too intelligent, strong and determined, to just accept things the way they are and always used to be. If it means to break with tradition to fight for her rights, so be it.

The idea of the “Midnight Hour” was what made this series stand out as it’s truly funny.

I might pick up book two in the series as the combination of witty humour, a strong endearing heroine and a gripping crime made for a very entertaining read.

Not everyone’s cup of tea but lovers of werewolf novels, fans of paranormal crime and urban fantasy should give it a try. It’s one of the best of its kind. For those who like their series with different paranormal creatures, yes, there are vampires as well.