04 December 2013

To the North, by Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen is not very good at endings. It's kind of a fascinating phenomenon, in that it seems borderline pathological; a horror of completion. But it's also frustrating, in that it can really mar an otherwise fantastic book, like To the North, whose ending just stinks. Was it a cliché at the time, I wonder, or is she part of the process of making it one? I don't know, but I don't like it. So let us pretend it did not happen and act as if the book were simply unfinished, and the last few pages lost.

To the North is essentially a romance novel; the story of two very different women, Emmeline and Cecilia, and their love affairs. It's remarkable in that both women are quite unavailable emotionally; Emmeline because she just never really seems to be there in the first place and is a kind of fascinating emotional blank, and Cecilia because she is astonishingly self-absorbed and completely illogical. And yet, they manage to forge these odd connections with two men who seem comparatively normal (though it must be admitted that Bowen is rather less interested in them, and thus, so are we. It's not ideal, but at least they aren't demonized, just sidelined). The ups and downs of their interactions are not at all like those of typical love stories, and it's ultimately very hard to say whether the phenomenon described is love, or whether the relationships are successful, or what is going on at all. The more you think about it, the murkier it seems, which is, I think, rather brilliant. I liked the book mainly because I found Emmeline strangely riveting. Ready to listen but astonishingly unresponsive, in love (maybe?) but uncommitted, abstract but somehow real: she's just a really interesting character study, which often seem to be the point of Bowen's books, in the grand scheme of things. I thought Emmeline was both more persuasive and more complex than the odd outsiders that people Bowen's other novels, and perhaps that's why I liked this book more than I have her others, though I enjoy all of them.

The real reason to love this novel though, as is generally the case with Bowen, is the language itself. Bowen's prose is basically perfect, as far as I'm concerned. She gazed at Julian, wishing he were a clock. It is unsurprising that  critics fixate on Bowen's Irishness, because her writing is exactly what you imagine stereotypical elegant English novels to sound like, except even more so, and with a kind of tense edginess to it. It almost seems like caricature at moments, but it's nearly impossible to tell. Regardless, the two paragraphs about a bus on pg 46 might be some of the world's most delightful writing on public transportation. Definitely a book worth reading.

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