Tuesday, 16 October 2018

The House in Paris

Undeterred by reading The Death of the Heart (nine years ago!), I have returned to Elizabeth Bowen, this time to read The House in Paris, partly because Susan Hill and others rate it as Bowen's best.
  I can see why; it's an extraordinary novel by any standards, one in which nothing happens (twice) and everything happens. The two outer sections of the novel trace the course of a day in which two children, Henrietta and Leopold, both in their different ways unwanted, both in transit, find themselves thrown together in the Parisian house of the imperious invalid Mme Fisher and her unmarried, unfulfilled daughter Naomi. Leopold's mother, whom he has never met, is supposedly coming to pick him up and take him to London with her, but the first section of the book ends with news that she is not coming after all.
 The novel then goes off on a great loop back into 'The Past' to give us some at least of the back story, with Leopold's mother, Karen, at the centre of things, along with Naomi and the man they both love. A tale of multiple betrayals, great and small, this section takes us up to the time when Karen finds herself pregnant with Leopold. After which it's back to 'The Present' for the resolution, such as it is, of Leopold's unhappy situation, and the departure of Henrietta to stay with her grandmother.
  The House in Paris is a dark, dense and knotty read, and has little good to say about humans and the things they do to each other – and yet it exerts a tenacious grip. Bowen's extraordinarily effective creation of atmosphere is achieved largely by cumulative means, by what Peter Ackroyd calls her 'munificence of detail'. Her long descriptive passages – especially in 'The Present', parts of which are set in County Cork and in Hythe – are luxuriant, intense, almost clotted. And they work; they do the job of building atmosphere, creating an unmistakable Bowen world, and lending a tremendous potency to those scenes in which the atmosphere-building stops, emotions break cover and secrets are spoken. Bowen's fictional world is not one in which you'd want to live, but it's a bracing experience to plunge into it from time to time, and emerge chastened, sadder but wiser, and with that bit more insight into some of the darker byways of the human heart.

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