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. Slowly the flimsy structures of Stella’s life begin to break into pieces.
First published: 1948
Today I had my last class of 2013, and this was also the last class of the Modernism course I’ve been following for the past weeks. I’ve had to read a couple of novels for this course (Howards End by E.M. Forster and Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf, for example) but The Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen has to be my favourite.
Published in 1948 (but started during 1944, while the bombs were still falling), The Heat of the Day is a noir depicting London during the Second World War. It’s a novel about love and betrayal during war time; about a way of living that can only be caused by the fear of something so dreadful as this war. Everything is different in London because of it, and Bowen describes this beautifully and chillingly:
Parks suddenly closed because of timebombs — drifts of leaves in the empty deck chairs, birds afloat on the dazzlingly silent lakes — presented, between the railings which still girt them, mirages of repose. All this was beheld each morning more light-headedly: sleeplessness disembodied the lookers-on.
Fatigue was the only reality. You dared not envisage sleep. Apathetic, the injured and dying in the hospitals watched light change on walls which might fall tonight.
Although the language in this novel is sometimes a bit complicated, and required me to read some sentences at least twice, I absolutely loved The Heat of the Day. It sent chills up my spine from time to time because of the way the atmosphere comes across.
Being Dutch and having grown up in the Netherlands has ensured my knowledge of the Second World War to be quite extensive, but, consequently, most of the novels I’ve read about the war are Dutch ones. It was really interesting to read about war time England, since that was quite a different experience than the Netherlands during war time — yes, it was still extremely frightening, but England was not invaded by the nazis, unlike the Netherlands. Reading about this particular experience of the war; the atmosphere, the anticipation, the fear and terror, the bombings — it gave me a whole new view of the war in that part of the world.
Even though (almost) 70 years is a long time, the Second World War is still in our memories. I wasn’t alive for it and my parents weren’t either, but my grandparents were. They don’t talk about it much (I’ve heard stories about that time maybe once or twice) but the knowledge that they lived through it is enough — it makes me realise it isn’t all that long ago and it brings it closer to me. It’s strange to imagine that time, since it is so completely different from how we live now, but that makes it all the more fascinating to read novels about it.
I probably wouldn’t have read The Heat of the Day if it weren’t for my class, but I’m very glad I did, so I would like to take this opportunity to recommend it to everyone. It fills your heart with dread, but that’s exactly what makes it worth reading.