”Overhead, an enemy plane had been dragging, drumming slowly round in the pool of night, drawing up bursts of gunfire--nosing, pausing, turning, fascinated to the point for its intent. The barrage banged, coughed, retched; in here the lights in the mirrors rocked. Now down a shaft of anticipating silence the bomb swung whistling. With the shock of detonation, still to be heard, four walls of in here yawped in then bellied out; bottles danced on glass; a distortion ran through the view. The detonation dulled off into the cataracting roar of a split building:
This novel is set against the backdrop of the very tail end of the London Blitz. There are still explosions, but the inhabitants of London have more pressing concerns dealing with the rubble that has steadily accumulated. Stella Rodney, like most women with husbands in the war, has been displaced to a smaller apartment. None of the possessions that fills the rooms are hers. Her husband Victor, after leaving her for a nurse, promptly paid for his sins with a glorious/inglorious death in the war. His family think that the reason the marriage dissolved was that Stella was a tart, and she is unsure of how best to disabuse them of that idea.
Stella is still a lovely woman.
”She had one of those charming faces which, according to the angle from which you see them, look either melancholy or impertinent. Her eyes were grey; her trick of narrowing them made her seem to reflect, the greater part of the time, in the dusk of her second thoughts. With that mood, that touch of arriere pensee, went an uncertain, speaking set of the lips. Her complexion, naturally pale, fine, soft, appeared through a pale, fine, soft bloom of make-up. She was young-looking--most because of the impression she gave of still being on happy sensuous terms with life. Nature had kindly given her one white dash, lock or wing in otherwise tawny hair…”
She is in love with Robert Kelway, a man with a limp from a war wound at Dunkirk.
”His experiences and hers became harder and harder to tell apart; everything gathered behind them into a common memory--though singly each of them might, must, exist, decide, act, all things done alone came to be no more than simulacra of behavior: they waited to live again till they were together, then took living up from where they had left it off.”
Robert has a nebulous job with the war effort that has him gone for days at a time. His personality morphs as the novel progresses. He seems so strong; and yet, he has unresolvable issues with his dead father, and bitterness about the circumstances that led to his wounding at Dunkirk.
”I never knew you before you were a wounded man.”
“In one way that would have been impossible--I was born wounded; my father’s son. Dunkirk was waiting there in us--what a race! A class without a middle, a race without a country. Unwhole. Never earthed in--and there are thousands of thousands of us, and we’re still breeding--breeding what? You may ask: I ask. Not only nothing to hold, nothing to touch. No source of anything in anything.”
Stella may have some worries in regards to Robert, but she has some real problems with another Robert referred to by his last name Harrison. (Okay there are only a handful of characters in this novel, why do authors insist on using a similar or in this case the same name. Bowen resolves it by referring to Harrison by his last name.) Harrison works in counter-intelligence, and is convinced that Robert is working for the Germans. He is an odd fellow as those shadowy characters always seem to be.
”...one of his eyes either was or behaved as being just perceptibly higher than the other. This lag or inequality in his vision gave her the feeling of being looked at twice--being viewed then checked over again in the same moment. His forehead stayed in the hiding, his eyebrows deep in the shadow, of his pulled-down hat; his nose was bony; he wore a close-clipped little that-was-that moustache. The set of his lips--from between which he had with less than civil reluctance withdrawn a cigarette--bespoke the intention of adding nothing should he happen to speak again. This was a face with a gate behind it--a face that, in this photographic half-light, looked indoor and weathered at the same time; a face, if not without meaning, totally and forbiddingly without mood.”
Harrison is willing to make a deal if Stella will leave Robert and become his girlfriend. If she complies he will turn a blind eye to Robert’s transgressions. She is unconvinced of Robert’s guilt, but at the same time she has doubts about his loyalty to his country. She is also attracted to Harrison which lends even more confusion to her already jangled feelings about both men.
There are some interesting sub-characters in this novel. Stella’s son Roderick who is in the service not because of any loyalty to the cause, but simply because that is what young men of his generation did. He has recently inherited an estate from his father’s family. He takes some time off from the war to tidy up the affairs of his inheritance.
”Dark ate the outlines of the house and drank from the broken distances of the valley. The air had been night itself, re-imprinted by every one of his movements upon his face and hands--and still, now that he was indoors and gone to bed, impregnating every part of the body it had not sensibly touched. He could not sleep during this memory of the air.”
This whole novel feels dipped in shadows. The descriptions of the terrain of London and the surrounding areas certainly had me thinking of how noirish this book would look on film. Stella is dramatic, elegant, and trapped in circumstances that feels like only something tragic can free her from the bonds of two men. Harrison and Stella are both characters who could have stepped out of any Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett novel.
Louie Lewis, the opposite of Stella, in so many ways. She sleeps with men to feel closer to her husband who is away fighting in the war. That is so sweet… I’m not sure the husband will see it quite that way. I really enjoyed Bowen’s description of Louie.
”Everything ungirt, artless, ardent, urgent about Louie was to the fore: all over herself she gave the impression of twisted stockings.”
Louie is somehow connected to Harrison and isn’t about to go quietly into the night. She wouldn’t know how.
Bowen has an unusual writing style that continually caught me by surprise. The words sometimes came at me in machine gun flashes. At other times her sentences were almost languid like Stella’s droopy eyelids. The first Elizabeth Bowen I’ve read and certainly not my last. Categorize this book as noir espionage with a splash of blitz.