I’d like to thank Caroline of Beauty is A Sleeping Cat for picking The Heat of the Day for March’s War and Literature Readalong. Now only has she brought me to London to coincide with a visit IRL but she has also restarted my 20th century challenge. (100 years, 100 books, 100 authors. Full list and progress report here.)

The book is set in war-time London – primarily in 1942, in the quiet time following the Blitz of 1940 and the smaller one of 1944. Stella, a well-heeled lady has been enjoying her love affair with Robert for two years. They are comfortable; they have not married and are happy to live separate lives outside the time they spend together. Stella’s piece-of-mind is disturbed, however, with the appearance of Harrison and his claims that Robert is a spy. He lets Stella know that, for a price, he won’t turn Robert in to the authorities. That price is her ….

Don’t, however, think that this is a sensational or fast-paced spy novel. I’ll confess now that I found it quite dull in places. 330 pages taking me the best part of a week to complete. How so?

There is a lot of dialogue, off-kilter conversations between Robert and Stella and Stella and Harrison. They skitter about with half-formed ideas, talking about one thing with undercurrents of something else. Of course, that’s the whole point. Bowen is exploring deception and the impossibility of knowing another person. The timeline and the potential espionage adding drama but the theme of the impossibility of ever truly knowing another person is universal and timeless.

You have to listen to hear what’s really being said. And you need to be a keen observer to keep up with what’s happening behind the scenes. Much of the spy chase happens off the page and the only two people really au fait with events are Robert and his pursuer, Harrison. It’s telling that Robert finds the human eye repugnant. The text is replete with subtle observations of that nature and I suspect that this novel would reward a reread.

Bowen takes the high drama out of the narrative to allow her to focus on ordinary people, albeit those of different classes, and how they are affected in extraordinary times of stress. Stella and her only son, Roderick, who inherits an Irish estate; Robert’s, shall we say, eccentric family and the house that is too big and has been on the market for years; Louie, a working class girl, pining for her husband and roaming the streets of London like a stray dog, and the enigmatic Harrison, a man who has never been loved and is most unlikely to be if he continues to proposition women as he does.

It’s easy to get a grip on some of these people but others are more challenging. Stella, for instance, allows herself to be portrayed as a monster because that is preferable to being considered a fool and, at times, displays an entirely unexpected sang-froid. A complicated lady, the hidden depths of her psychological profile reflecting both the resilience of the British in wartime and the intricacies of Bowen’s prose.