16 September 2012

The House in Paris, by Elizabeth Bowen

Let me say up front that I read this book knowing almost nothing about the plot beforehand, and that this lack of knowledge, though it initially made for some confusion, was ultimately a very rewarding way to experience the story, because what is so impressive about the book is the way it constructs the plot. And that's what I'm going to talk about in this blog post, so if you haven't read it, you might want to stop here.

Let me also say up front that the book definitely reflects the weird anti-Semitism of its time. It is occasionally distasteful, and I imagine that plenty of ink has been spilled deliberating over just how messed up it really is. I am not all that interested in continuing that debate, but I do think one needs to at least acknowledge that the characters in the book have a worldview that is sometimes pretty gross.

So, having gotten those preliminaries out of the way: it took me awhile to warm up to this book. The prose isn't as beautiful as that of Bowen's other works; it has that carefully wrought quality, but it just doesn't rise to the same level. What it does have though, is the trademark Bowen tip-of-the-iceberg quality, where what seems like a drawing room story turns out to have quite the murky depths. In essence, the book is about a set of tangled relationships, which produce an illegitimate child. The genius of the book though, is that rather than telling it in chronological order, the book begins with a completely different, unrelated child who happens to be the casual bystanders (one might say collateral damage) of a day of reckoning years later. So as you read, you're focused on this other child, Henrietta, who has very little to do with the 'actual' story. This makes the story a really interesting reflection on children and how they deal with the adult world (and how the adult world deals with them). It vaguely made me think of both Ian McEwan's Atonement and A. S. Byatt's Children's Book.

There's also this weird gothic quality to the novel. It's slightly overdramatic in some ways - I think it would have been more effective if it had been left subtler - but it's decidedly creepy and quite interesting. One might reflect on how the theme of hereditary curse gets reworked here; it's not quite supernatural, except inasofar as any person who is so toxic to everyone around them seems profoundly evil in a not-of-this-world sort of way. The terrifying figure of the resentful, lonely, tyrannical woman, yowzers.

Elizabeth Bowen really is vastly underappreciated. She belongs in the modernist canon as one of the greats, I think, but you rarely see her mentioned there. This is not her finest work, but it's an interesting one nonetheless.

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