Sometimes a book can be recommended to you so much that it begins to feel irrationally dangerous to actually read it. For me, that book has been Elizabeth Bowen’s The Death of the Heart. The novel was pressed on me so many times, often with a strange urgency, that the prospect of reading it took on the same risk as a visit to a fortune-teller might: I might learn something that I both did and didn’t want to know, something that would be both revelatory and burdensome. It wasn’t until this year that I pulled the book from my shelf where it had sat for decades like a dare. And I suppose what was revealed was that Bowen had set the bar nearly impossibly high in terms of just how deeply knowing a writer has to be to be able to describe the truly lived life. There is not one simple emotion in the book, nothing that allows you to think what you knew all along was accurate. Consider this: “There were times when Anna almost hated Eddie, for she was conscious of the vacuum inside him. As for him, he found her one mass of pretence, and detested the feeling she showed for power. Through all this, they did still again and again discover reaches of feeling in one another…Once, in a fit of penitence, she rang up Denis’s flat and heard Eddie in tears. The extreme pity she felt brought her, for some reason, to snapping point: she went straight downstairs and complained to Thomas that Eddie tired her more than she could bear.” There are so many acrobatic shifts in those few sentences it is breathtaking to read. And it happens again and again, on every page with even the most minor of characters. Bowen writes as if she is holding a lived moment up to the light like a jewel, turning it so that every time you think you behold it in its totality, you realize that you are wrong: there is so much more. She is funny and sharp and she writes as if she is teasing apart her characters’ lives with a sharp tool. A dangerous book indeed.
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