The Death of the Heart

by Elizabeth Bowen

Prior to seeing this book on the list, I had never heard of Elizabeth Bowen, who is by all accounts, apparently, one of the greatest novelists of the twentieth century! To me, Bowen comes off as something of a poor man's Evelyn Waugh, if you will. There is nothing in the telling of The Death of the Heart that ever really grabs me or elicits strong feeling. I have no trouble setting this book down in the middle of a chapter, or going long stretches between chapters, because no desire has been built in me to need to know or to really care what becomes of the characters. I feel there is much better writing in many of the other books on this list. I don't dislike The Death of the Heart, but all in all, I end up feeling pretty "gray" about it.

Bowen's effort concerns the strained relationships between a teenaged half-sister sent to live with an older brother & his wife in London. It is very much a fish-out-of-water tale, with some poignant lines here and there that have the capacity to bring one crashing back to what it feels like to be an awkward teen. The spots of tension that do develop in the narrative are typically engendered by the collision course between said awkwardness on the part of 16-year-old Portia, and the cluelessness & seemingly genuine impassivity of the not-much-older "adults" who inhabit her world & really do her no favors.

Here are a few good lines from the book, beginning with my favorite (an absolute gem)!
• "She walked about with the rather fated expression you see in photographs of girls who have subsequently been murdered, but nothing had so far happened to her...."
• "Furniture's knowing all right. Not much get past the things in a room, I daresay, and chairs and tables don't go to the grave so soon. Every time I take the soft cloth to that stuff in the drawingroom, I could say, 'Well, you know a bit more.'"
• "There is no fidelity like the fidelity of the vicarious lover who has once seen a kiss."
• "Propriety is no serious check to nature—in fact, nature banks itself up behind it—thus, eyes constantly bulged and skins changed colour with immediate unsubtle impulses."
• "Pictures would not be hung plumb over the centres of fireplaces or wallpapers pasted on with such precision that their seams make no break in the pattern if life were really not possible to adjudicate for."
• "Her patient grip on her small case, her head turning, the thin, chilly stretch of her arms between short sleeves and short gloves struck straight where his heart should be—but the shaft bent inside him: to see her only made him breezily cross."

In seeing all the individual quotes I enjoy within this book, perhaps comparison with Iris Murdoch is in order: keen isolated perceptions in the absence of a really arresting overarching story. As I say, I don't dislike this book—as I do not dislike Under the Net—but when you've got a hundred to go through, you've got to be niggardly with praise at times.