Monday, June 6, 2016

#83 - "The Death of the Heart" by Elizabeth Bowen

This is the second book in the "Death Trilogy" that features on this list; the others being A Death in the Family, and Death Comes for the Archbishop. I guess the novelization of Death to Smoochy just didn't make the cut.

I didn't know anything about this book when I started reading it, but shouldn't have been surprised that I enjoyed it. First off, it's on this list, and I've enjoyed most of the books on this list. Secondly, it's set in inter-war Europe, and I don't think there has been an inter-war European book I haven't enjoyed (remember, Gravity's Rainbow was during the war).

The novel begins as Portia Quayne, 16, has been sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife, in London, following the death of her mother. The result of her and Thomas' father's extramarital affair, Portia spent most of her youth in exile from British society, her father hiding himself, her, and her mother from the shame that often followed a child born out of wedlock.

Because of her unique upbringing, Portia finds herself without any close relationships and is, not surprisingly, a little bit awkward socially. The move to London doesn't change this; as her closest relationship seems to be with Matchett, the housekeeper. But one day, a friend of Portia's sister-in-law, Eddie, shows up at the house. Twenty-three and working for Thomas, Portia is instantly taken with the young man, and before long a relationship forms.

The two spend their time walking through the city, holding hands, and professing their love for each other. Of course it doesn't take long to realize that Eddie is a bit of a sleaze, and is likely just taking advantage of the young and naive Portia. It doesn't take long for the reader that is; for Portia it isn't so obvious.

It must have been tempting to turn the book into a tragedy, which it could have easily become at any time; in the beginning it reminded me a bit of The French Lieutenant's Woman, where the characters were doomed from page one. But instead, Bowen allows the story to teeter on the edge of tragedy, while adding a comedic element that leaves the reader interested, but not dreading, the inevitable collapse of a relationship between a 23 year old and a 16 year old.

Adding to the humour, is setting the book among well-to-do Brits in the 30s. Much the same way Waugh was able to satirize British society in A Handful of Dust, Bowen did here, showcasing the most formal of conversations between even the closest of friends. It inevitably leads to an awkward situation later on, which the reader gets to enjoy.

I also become deeply vested in Portia. She is quite a straight forward and honest woman (especially for the British society mentioned above), wearing her emotions on her sleeve. It allows the reader to develop a solid bond with her, which naturally makes everything that happens to her that much more interesting.

I'd also like to add that this was the second book from this list that made me gasp. Okay, I didn't gasp out loud (as I did when reading Gone with the Wind), but I found myself quite stunned at a sudden turn of events; which in hindsight I should have seen coming a mile away. Perhaps that is what I enjoyed the most about this novel.