The Death of the Heart, Paperback
4 out of 5 (1 rating)


It is London in the late 1930s, and into a coterie of rather grand early-middle-aged people the sixteen-year-old orphan Portia is plunged beyond her depth.

Disconcertingly vulnerable, Portia is manifestly trying to understand what is going on around her and looking for something that is not there.

Evident victim, she is also an inadvertent victimiser - her impossible lovingness and austere trust being too much for her admirer Eddie, who is himself defensive and uncomfortable in this society which has managed to bring them together.

In the midst of the rising tension is set perhaps Elizabeth Bowen's most brilliant piece of social comedy, when, at a seaside villa full of rollicking young people, Portia experiences at least temporary relief from the misery Eddie seems determined to bring her.




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What brought me to this book was its mention in the Guardian's recent series on 'best novels', this being in the section on 'love'.It's certainly not romantic and the better for it for my taste.Briefly: Portia, a recently orphaned sixteen-year-old, has been dutifully asked to stay 'for just for a year' by her much older half-brother and his wife in their upper middle-class household in central London. The wife, Anna, has a social life largely revolving around several male acquaintances and it is one of these, Eddie, a fly-by-night flippant character that takes Portia on, as it were, almost like a game.As readers we know, unlike Portia, that it will all end in tears. This isn't really what's important or what's interesting. What sustains the novel is the gradual paring away of the adult characters to show their essentially deadened hearts, something which the author does mainly via their conversations and not by their actions - showing, not telling.The middle section, when Portia stays for a fortnight in a south coast resort with a very lower middle-class family, is good social comedy and a necessary contrast to the earlier chapters.I did at first find this 1938 novel anachronistic in some ways. There are little French words and phrases dotted about in italics, and there's the presence of parlourmaids and a loyal retainer-type housekeeper in the Regents Park house but the quality of the writing and Elizabeth Bowen's sensibility made me discard any prejudices.I'm now starting a second 'recommended' book of hers.

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