The Death Of The Heart is another novel I treasured in the 1980s. Elizabeth Bowen wrote it just before WWII and the fragile neuroticism of its London-based characters reflects the fear and anticipation of a world coming to an end. So I was looking forward to re-engaging with it and this time round heard it as an audio title with the wonderful Katherine Kellgren narrating.
In many ways, it didn’t disappoint. Bowen is an extraordinary writer, relentless in her picking away at the layers of artifice each of her characters displays. She is equally good when dealing with the ascerbic and disappointed Anna as she is with the rough and ready hearty Dickie. There is no delicate flutter of a butterfly’s wing resulting in some indication of emotional mood which she does not spot and pin to a board with almost cruel efficiency. She is entirely unemotional in her language and it is precisely her forensic descriptive skills which overwhelm one with the knowledge of unspoken emotional horrors.
But in some ways it does fail. She concentrates so much on being so non-judgemental of her characters, choosing instead to let their words and actions speak for themselves, that too often her characters simply refuse to live. The rascal Eddie, the doom-laden husband Thomas, even the annoying central character Portia all somehow fail ultimately to feel real to us. And in the final scene, which consists of the stream of consciousness of housekeeper Matchett, I think Bowen reveals her desire to go beyond the formal narrative novel and to play with more modernist ideas like her fellow countryman Joyce. That scene fails and makes the ending a disappointment which I suspect she knew.
That apart, wouldn’t you give a lot to have even a touch of her talent? She really is remarkable.