Book #71: The Death Of The Heart
Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not the kind of guy who enjoys reading teenage love stories on my beach vacation, which will be here in a few weeks.
So it’s wonderful timing that I’m wrapping up The Death of the Heart today—just in time to leave it at home when I go on vacation. Won’t The Lord of the Rings be the perfect read for the beach?
I took way too long to finish this book. At first, I thought the novel would be a slog—the opening didn’t exactly give me warm and fuzzies about enjoying The Death of the Heart. But it improved. The novel gets better. Elizabeth Bowen is obviously in her element writing this book. Everything about the story feels natural and unforced.
To give you a brief summary of the story, The Death of the Heart follows the plight of Portia, a 16-year-old orphan who is taken in by her older brother and his wife (Thomas and Anna) in London. She mostly keeps to herself, and her sister-in-law isn’t too fond of her living with the family. At one point, they go on a long vacation without Portia, shipping her off to live with a family friend.
In the middle of all this, Portia falls for an older man. He’s a 23-year-old creepster named Eddie, who hints at having had a relationship with Portia’s sister-in-law (Anna) in the past.
The whole novel is a character study. All of the tension revolves around Portia’s infatuation with Eddie, and Eddie’s expert ability to tease her while keeping her at arm’s length. There’s not much going on other than that.
Meanwhile, Bowen is brilliant at keeping the reader at an arm’s length from “getting” these characters. Are they good people? Are they bad people? Can you really like them and trust them?
Outside of Portia, the innocent one here, that’s a hard question to answer about these other characters. We’ve all got our problems and personality flaws, and Bowen throws you right in the middle of these people’s issues. They’re relatable characters because of their ambiguity.
She uses a technique I’ve seen in a lot of the recent novels I’ve been reading for the list. It’s moving from narration into a first-person letter or journal. I saw this a lot with Possession, and here it is again in The Death of the Heart, though not near as frequent.
You’ll be reading a lot from Portia’s journal entries. Quick short bursts of writing with very little description:
I am back here, in London. They won’t be back till tomorrow.
And that diary ends up playing a large part in the story, when its discovered by Portia’s sister-in-law, Anna.
In all, The Death of the Heart turned out better than I originally expected. It’s still not a novel you’ll see me running through the streets screaming about, but I’d recommend to people who I thought would appreciate it.
One last thought. My post from last week about teenage romance stories gave the impression that The Death of the Heart is a YA novel. It’s absolutely not. The protagonist is a teenage girl, but the themes and the issues within this story are absolutely not YA material.
So keep that in mind if you decide to jump into The Death of the Heart.
The Opening Line: “That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments.”
The Meaning: I think you could rename the book to The Death of the Innocence and it would convey the same meaning. That’s what this is about—a 16-year-old girl is experiencing the reality of adulthood and the complexities of relationships for the first time.
Highlights: As I mentioned in the review, I love how Bowen handles the character development in this novel.
Lowlights: Overly descriptive at times. Not a lot of plot, but that’s intentional.
Memorable Line: ““A romantic man often feels more uplifted with two women than with one: his love seems to hit the ideal mark somewhere between two different faces.”
Final Thoughts: In all, this was a nice book. A little wordy, a little dry at times. I wouldn’t read The Death of the Heart again, but I wouldn’t have any problem recommending it to you if it sounds like a book you might enjoy.