Tag Archives: Ireland

The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen

I have long wanted to read Elizabeth Bowen; her 1938 novel, The Death of the Heart, has been calling me for quite a while. By rights I should have read it earlier in preparation for Karen and Simon’s 1938 Club (which took place last week) but time got the better of me in the end. Nevertheless, I’m hoping this review might count as a late entrant.

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When both her parents die in fairly quick succession, sixteen-year-old Portia Quayne is sent to live with her half-brother Thomas and his wife Anna in their large house near Regent’s Park in London. It was her late father’s wish that Portia should live with Thomas and his wife for a year, after which time she might move on to stay with an aunt. In truth, neither Thomas nor Anna is particularly keen to have Portia, although Thomas, for his part, does feel some sense of duty towards the girl. Portia was born out an affair between Thomas’ father and the woman who became his second wife, Irene. After their marriage, the couple spent their lives in the south of France, moving from one hotel to another with Portia in tow, effectively in a sort of exile from Thomas’ mother and the family. With Portia now living in London, her presence in the house cannot help but remind Thomas of the shame and embarrassment he experienced over the affair, emotions that always came to the fore whenever he visited his father and Irene in France.

In those sunless hotel rooms, those chilly flats, his father’s disintegration, his laugh so anxious or sheepish, his uneasiness with Irene in Thomas’s presence, had filled Thomas with an obscure shame – on behalf of his father, himself, and society. From the grotesqueries of that marriage he had felt a revulsion. (pg. 39)

There is no real warmth or affection in the Quayne household with very little sense of anyone taking any form of pleasure from their activities. All in all, it’s a rather strange and unwelcoming place for a young girl who has recently lost her parents. At 36, Thomas is much older than Portia; and with no children of their own, Thomas and Anna have no real experience of dealing with adolescents, nor any appreciation of how to incorporate Portia into their lives. Anna, in particular, is a rather cold, unsympathetic creature, more concerned with taking tea with her own friends than with trying to forge any kind of connection with Portia. She finds Portia somewhat unnerving, convinced as she is that the girl is stealing furtive glances at her and Thomas from a distance (although in truth Portia is simply curious and somewhat unsure of herself). As a consequence of all this, Portia is pretty much left to her own devices most of the time, her closest ally in the house being Matchett, the family’s maid.

Bowen is brilliant at capturing the sheer awkwardness and uncertainty of adolescence. Portia has very little understanding of how to behave around Anna, Thomas and their friends, no real sense of the workings of the adult mind. (And why should she? After all, her upbringing was somewhat unconventional and very different from the upper-class world in which she finds herself now.) In this scene, Portia is present while Anna takes tea with her friend, St Quentin – I think it’s an excellent illustration of Portia’s situation at the Quanyes’.

Getting up from the stool carefully, Portia returned her cup and plate to the tray. Then, holding herself so erect that she quivered, taking long soft steps on the balls of her feet, and at the same time with an orphaned unostentation, she started making towards the door. She moved crabwise, as though the others were royalty, never quite turning her back on them – and they, waiting for her to be quite gone, watched. She wore a dark wool dress, in Anna’s excellent taste, buttoned from throat to hem and belted with heavy leather. The belt slid down her thin hips, and she nervously gripped at it, pulling it up. Short sleeves showed her very thin arms and big delicate elbow joints. Her body was all concave and jerkily fluid lines; it moved with sensitive looseness, loosely threaded together: each movement had a touch of exaggeration, as though some secret power kept springing out. At the same time she looked cautious, aware of the world in which she had to live. She was sixteen, losing her childish majesty. (pgs. 26-27)

With very little support or affection coming from her half-brother and his wife, Portia falls in with Eddie, an acquaintance of Anna’s who also happens to work in Thomas’ office. Eddie is a selfish, uncaring young man with no real sense of integrity or responsibility. Portia, in her childlike innocence, is unable to see this, and so she falls in love with Eddie, believing everything he tells her without question.

Things take a different turn for Portia when Thomas and Anna decide to go to Capri for a month. Instead of taking the girl with them, the Quanyes pack her off to the Kentish coast to stay with Anna’s old governess, Mrs Heccomb, and her stepchildren, Daphne and Dickie, both of whom are in their twenties. The Heccomb household – the house is called Waikiki – represents a marked change of pace for Portia. It is welcoming, lively and somewhat chaotic, full of the sounds of doors banging, plates clattering and music playing away in the background. Quite soon after her arrival, Portia find herself drawn into the Heccombs’ friendly social set and their world of dances, cafés, and walks along the coastline. In some ways, it all starts to feel like a new beginning for the young girl.

However, there is trouble in the air when Portia invites Eddie to stay at the Heccombs’. From the moment she sets eyes on him, Mrs Heccomb detects something fishy about Eddie and is visibly distracted by his presence. Her view of Anna is rather idealised, and there is something about Eddie’s manner which seems quite at odds with this. In this scene, Eddie has just sat down to tea following his arrival at Waikiki.

He could not be expected to know that his appearance, and that the something around him that might be called his aura, struck into her heart its first misgiving for years – a misgiving not about Portia but about Anna. […] A conviction (dating from her last year at Richmond) that no man with bounce could be up to any good set up an unhappy twitch in one fold of her left cheek. Apprehensions that someone might be common were the worst she had had to combat since she ruled at Waikiki. No doubt it must be in order, this young man being Portia’s friend, since Porta said that he was a friend of Anna’s. But what was he doing being a friend of Anna’s? … Portia, watching the cheek twitch, wondered what could be up. (pg 209)

The weekend continues on a note of confusion for Portia as she struggles to understand Eddie’s behaviour around Daphne, especially when the two of them end up sitting next to one another at the cinema. It is a defining moment in the story as Portia finds herself in a world where people don’t necessarily say what they mean or mean what they say. Furthermore, once she returns to London, Portia discovers the true extent of the betrayals by those around her, not just by Eddie, but by others close to her as well.

The Death of the Heart is a wonderful novel, a very subtle exploration of the pain and confusion of adolescence, of how easy it is for someone to toy with the emotions of a teenager, especially someone as vulnerable and as trusting as Portia. Eddie is a cruel, insensitive young man who takes advantage of Portia’s naivety and desire for affection, crushing her hopes and dreams in the process. In turn, Anna and Thomas are little better than Eddie, failing to offer Portia the support and protection she so desperately needs.

In some ways, Heart reminds me very strongly of some of Elizabeth Taylor’s novels, particularly A Game of Hide and Seek and At Mrs Lippincote’s (review to come). Both Bowen and Taylor pay close attention to character development, creating complex but realistic individuals the reader can invest in. Like Taylor, Bowen is an acute observer of the social interactions between people, and this novel is full of beautifully rendered scenes, rich with detail and latent emotions. The secondary characters deserve a mention as well, particularly Major Brutt, an acquaintance of the Quanyes who finds himself ridiculed by the couple (Anna in particular).

I’ll finish with a final quote, one that illustrates the novel’s London setting. Bowen’s description of this cold afternoon in January reflects something of the atmosphere in the Quanyes’ house, a cold, brittle, shallow place with little warmth inside.

The circle of traffic tightens at this hour round Regent’s Park; cars hummed past without a break; it was just before lighting-up time – quite soon the All Out whistles would sound. At the far side of the road, dusk set the Regency buildings back at a false distance: against the sky they were colourless silhouettes, insipidly ornate, brittle, and cold. The blackness of windows not yet lit or curtained made the houses look hollow inside. (pg. 9)

Karen, Ali and Harriet have also reviewed this novel.

The Death of the Heart is published by Vintage Books; personal copy

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (2) – life in a small town in Ireland

Last week I posted the first of two pieces I’ve put together on Nora Webster, Colm Tóibín’s touching novel about a woman who has to find a new way to live following the death of her husband. The book is set in Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s. My first post focused on certain aspects of Nora’s character together with some background on the story – if you haven’t already read it, please do take a look. In this second piece, I’m going to consider the setting and period – more specifically, life in a small Irish community in the late sixties. By doing so, I hope to be able to bring out some of the novel‘s humour alongside other elements.

Nora cover

In my previous piece, I commented on Tóibín’s achievement in creating a complex, nuanced character in Nora, one I find utterly believable and full of depth. He’s equally strong when it comes to evoking a sense of place as his portrayal of a small-town Ireland rings completely true to me.

Enniscorthy is a very conservative community, a place where everybody knows everyone else, and they all know what is happening in the town. Nora’s husband, Maurice, was widely known and well respected, and when he dies, Nora has to deal with a stream of well-wishers keen to express their condolences. Naturally, these people have nothing but good intentions, but Nora, an intensely private person at heart, finds it all too difficult to cope with these conversations.

I found myself wondering just how much of this is down to Nora’s character, her internal make-up, and how much might be a function of the culture in Ireland at the time. My recollection of Ireland in the 1970s – a time not long after the period featured in Nora – is a place where virtually everybody internalised their own personal pain following the death of a partner. Nobody discussed how they were feeling; nobody talked about grief or how best to cope with it. Either way, this next quote resonates with me. It reminds me of how my mother felt when we returned to her family home in Ireland in the years following my father’s death. She would long for the time when she could go out without someone reminding her of her loss.

The town had become easier. In Court Street, or John Street, or on the Back Road, no one stopped her any more to express sympathy, no one stood looking into her eyes waiting for her to reply. If she met someone now and they stopped, it was to discuss other things. Sometimes, as they were ready to part, they would ask her how she was, or how the boys were, and this would be a way of quietly acknowledging what had happened. But even still she became nervous when she saw someone coming towards her ready to remind her of her loss. It was at times intrusive and hurtful. (pg. 183)

The novel is set in a culture where many women like Nora were expected to stay at home and manage the household. Once married, a woman’s main role would revolve around caring for her husband and her children. One of the threads running through the novel is Nora’s growing sense of independence in the years that follow her husband’s death. When he was alive, Maurice made all the decisions in the marriage, not just the big choices but several little ones too; for instance, when they went out for the evening, it was always Maurice who decided when they would leave.

With her husband gone, Nora gradually realises that she can think for herself: she can express her own opinions on the political situation rumbling away in the background at the time; she can begin to develop her own interests, pursuits that Maurice would never have shared. At first she is concerned that others will judge her, worried about what they might think if she dyes her hair or spends money on records. After all, Enniscorthy is a conservative town whose inhabitants are often quick to form opinions. In time, though, Nora becomes more willing to live a little. Here she considers her new stereo system, a purchase she makes to complement her growing love of music.

They would all see it now, all of her visitors, Nora thought, and they would think her extravagant. She would have to steel herself, no matter what comments they made, not to care. She had wanted this and now she had it. (pg. 280)

Much of Nora’s story reminds me of my mother’s own personal experience of losing her husband, the Ireland she knew, the people she met there. This is all rather melancholy, so I’d like to finish on a more positive note by commenting on some of the humour running through Nora. It would be very easy to form the impression that this novel is entirely morose. Naturally, the story is sad and very moving, but there are moments of lightness too, much of which stems from Tóibín’s observations on various members of the community.

There is a wonderful passage in which Nora is persuaded, albeit somewhat reluctantly, to have her hair dyed and styled. She is mortified when the colour turns out looking less natural than she had expected. What on earth will people think of her with Maurice only six months in the grave? Naturally, Nora is worried they will think she is trying to look like a much younger woman.

I could have picked one of several quotes from this section of the story – Conor’s reaction, in particular, is priceless – but instead I’ve chosen a short piece from a conversation Nora has with her Aunt Josie. Tóibín has a wonderful ear for dialogue, for the language and expressions the people of small-town Ireland use in their day-to-day lives. I think it shows in this quote. Here’s Josie as she tells Nora how she popped into Fitzgerald’s, a clothes shop in Wexford, just to kill a bit of time while waiting for her husband. This passage also seems to capture something of the spirit of Josie, a woman who reminds me so much of one of my own aunts.

‘…So I went in, and there was a very friendly assistant all ready to help. And I began to fit on costumes and then she got all the accessories. You should have seen the prices! Oh, she had me rigged out ten times over and went off to get more things that might suit me better. I was only filling in time. And I got a good hour out of it. She was full of this colour and that shade and this cut and that new fashion and what suited me and didn’t suit me. And then when I was back in my own clothes and ready to depart, didn’t she let out a roar at me, that I was after wasting her time. And she followed me to the door and said to me that I was not to think of coming into her shop again.’

Nora almost had a pain in her side laughing. Josie remained serious, with just a glint in her eye.

‘So I won’t be going into Fitzgerald’s to buy my spring outfit,’ she said sadly and shook her head. The cheek of that woman! A rip of a one.’ (pg. 39)

Several other bloggers have reviewed Nora Webster – posts that have caught my eye include those by Claire, FictionFan, Max and Simon.

Nora Webster is published by Penguin. Source: personal copy. Book 13/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Nora Webster by Colm Tóibín (1) – Nora

Colm Tóibín’s latest novel, Nora Webster, has been widely reviewed in the press and the blogosphere. Consequently, there seems little point in my trying to write a traditional review of this fine novel – I would simply end up repeating the words of other reviews. (It’s probably going to be hard to avoid doing that anyway, but I’ll try not to.) Instead, I’m going to comment on a few passages from the novel, quotes that seem to reveal something about the characters or the particular time and sense of place. This is the first of two pieces I’ve put together on Nora Webster, a story that speaks to me on a personal level. Today’s post focuses on Nora’s character while the second piece (which I’m planning to post next week) will look at the setting.

Nora cover

The novel is set in Enniscorthy (Tóibín’s birthplace), a small town in the south-east of Ireland in the late 1960s. Nora’s husband, Maurice, a well-respected local schoolteacher, has recently died a slow and painful death. This leaves Nora alone with her two young sons, Donal and Connor, both of whom are still in school. Her two older children, Fiona and Aine, are continuing their studies at college/boarding school and as such they are living away from home for most of the year. Nora is in her mid-forties when Maurice dies, and the book takes us through the next four years or so of Nora’s life as she tries to come to terms with the changes widowhood brings. In effect, she must try to find a new way to live.

As the novel opens, we find Nora deep in grief as she struggles to cope with the constant stream of friends and neighbours who call to express their sympathy. These visitors mean well, but they are somewhat intrusive both physically and emotionally, each one requiring a little piece of Nora at a time when she would much rather be alone. In the early months following Maurice’s death, Nora suppresses her feelings, internalising all her emotions as she tries to keep things together for the sake of the boys.

Her aim in those months, autumn leading to winter, was to manage for the boys’ sake and maybe her own sake too to hold back tears. Her crying as though for no reason frightened the boys and disturbed them as they gradually became used to their father not being there. She realized now that they had come to behave as if everything were normal, as if nothing were really missing. They had learned to disguise how they felt. She in turn, had learned to recognize danger signs, thoughts that would lead to other thoughts. She measured her success with the boys by how much she could control her feelings. (pg. 6, Penguin Books)

Quite early on in the novel it becomes apparent that Nora’s sons, Donal and Conor, are deeply unsettled. In the period leading up to her husband’s death, Nora devoted herself to Maurice completely, visiting him in hospital every day and staying by his side as much as possible. The boys went to live with their Aunt Josie for a couple of months, and during this time they heard nothing from Nora, neither a phone call nor a visit. Her sole focus was Maurice. As a consequence, the boys felt abandoned, a realisation that only becomes clear to Nora after Maurice’s death. Here’s Josie as she tells Nora what happened.

‘…So they stayed here. And it was silent. And they thought you might come and you never did. Sometimes even if a car began to make its way up the lane, or pulled in on the road, the two of them would stop what they were doing and sit up. And then time went by. I don’t know what you were thinking of leaving them here all that time and never once coming to see them.’ (pg. 54)

I wouldn’t want to give the impression Nora doesn’t care for her children – in fact, she’s fiercely protective of them when they’re treated unjustly. It’s just that she finds it hard to show her emotions, and there are times when she could demonstrate a little more warmth in her interactions with the children.

As the narrative progresses, it gradually becomes apparent that Nora is somewhat distanced from other members of her immediate family, too. She is not close to her married sister, Catherine, and her younger sister, Una, is a little afraid of upsetting her. There is an inner steeliness to Nora’s character, and she can be rather blunt at times. As a consequence of all of this, Nora is often left out of various conversations as close friends and family members think they know what’s best for her and the boys. In this scene, Nora discovers she is the last person to hear of Una’s forthcoming wedding.

Nora felt the weight of them all talking about her, all of them thinking that she might in some way object to her sister getting married or say something stinging to Una about it. She wished now that she felt like saying something helpful, but she could not think what it might be. But she also wished that the three of them might go, the two girls back upstairs or to the other room, and Una to her own house. The longer they stayed expecting something from her, the closer she came to feeling a sort of rage that she knew stemmed from her encounter with Miss Kavanagh and from not sleeping well […]. But it also came from Una herself, and from Fiona and Aine. (pg. 155)

As you’ve probably gathered by now, Nora Webster is not a plot-driven novel. This is a quiet, largely introspective story that relies on the strength of its characters. Tóibín has created a complex, nuanced character in Nora, one I find utterly believable and full of depth. So much of her situation, along with certain aspects of her personality, reminds me of my own mother’s life. There are several parallels: both women were brought up in small-town communities in Ireland; both were widowed in their mid-forties; both suppressed their emotions, internalising much of what they were feeling and thinking. (I must have been about the same age as Donal when my own father died suddenly.)

Tóibín perfectly captures Nora’s grief, this sense of feeling cast adrift from day-to-day life, of floating in a world where everything seems meaningless.

So this was what being alone was like, she thought. It was not the solitude she had been going through, nor the moments when she felt his death like a shock to her system, as though she had been in a car accident, it was this wandering in a sea of people with the anchor lifted, and all of it oddly pointless and confusing. (pg. 204)

The novel contains a number of perceptive passages on the difficulty of recovering from the death of a partner. At times, it feels as though there is nothing to move on to, only what has happened in the past.

Slowly but surely, Nora does begin to discover a new way to live. She finds solace in music, joins the town’s Gramophone Society and takes singing lessons in her spare time. Her deep love of classical music is something Maurice would never have cared for.

In time, she also finds a way of reconnecting with her children, particularly Donal who seems to be the one most affected by Maurice’s death. In this scene, she realises just how much she needs to reach out to reassure him, to demonstrate she’s there for him.

Her speaking about herself, her own needs, her own worry, made him appear even more alert. It occurred to her that he had thought more closely about her over the previous few years than she had about him. She wondered if that could be true. She knew that how she felt affected him, and now, for the first time, how he felt seemed more urgent, more worthy of attention than any of her feelings. All she could do was to let him know and make him believe that she would do everything she promised to do. (pg. 309)

Needless to say, I loved this novel for its textured portrayal of Nora, for its beautiful pared-back prose, for so many things. I’ll be back next week with a shorter piece on life in small-town Ireland in the late 1960s and the humour in the community.

Nora Webster is published by Penguin. Source: personal copy. Book 13/20, #TBR20 round 2.

Academy Street by Mary Costello

Costello’s debut novel, Academy Street, focuses on the life of Tess Lohan, a girl born and raised on a farm in rural Ireland. The novel opens in the mid-1940s with the death of Tess’ mother, a life cut short by tuberculosis.

Academy street

Tess is considered too young to attend her mother’s funeral – she must stay at home for the day. Tess is seven at the time, and we get the sense that her family have told her very little about her mother’s death. When she sees the coffin being manoeuvred down the stairs Tess realises her mother has gone:

The stairs sweep up and turn to the right and it is here on the turn, by the stained-glass window, that her uncle’s back comes into view. Light is streaming in. Her heart starts to beat fast. She sees the back of a neighbour, Tommy Burns, and her other uncle, struggling. And then she understands. At the exact moment she sees the coffin, she understands. (pg. 5, Canongate)

This pivotal event in Tess’ childhood sets the tone for the decades that follow. Life on the farm is very quiet and Tess retreats into herself.  She is deeply affected by the loss of her mother. Tess’ father is strict and taciturn; her closest friends are her older sister, Claire, and farm hand, Mike Connolly.

The remainder of the first third of the novel touches on key moments in Tess’ childhood, most notably an encounter which renders her unable to speak for several months. We follow Tess as she moves to boarding school and then to Dublin where she trains as a nurse. During her time as a nurse, she is kind and polite to her colleagues but retreats into the shadows wherever possible:

She goes to the cinema with a girl from Cork, but mostly avoids social gatherings and nights out. The shyness she feels among others, and the terrible need to fit in, cause her such anxiety that when the evening arrives the prospect of going among people renders her immobile, disabled, sometimes physically sick. Whenever possible, she opts for night duty, the low lights and the hush of the ward offering the closest thing to solitude available in a working life. (pg. 52)

By this stage in Tess’ life her beloved sister, Claire, has moved to New York. Each time Tess returns to Easterfield, the family home, she notices the changes: Mike Connolly has moved on, too old and ill to tend the farm any longer; the family’s dog has passed away; her younger brother, Oliver, has grown up. Tess realises there is little left for her in Ireland, so she decides to follow in Claire’s footsteps by moving to America. (By now we are in the early 1960s.)

The remainder of the novel concerns itself with Tess’ life in New York. She moves in with her Aunt Molly and another boarder, Fritz. As the months pass, Tess begins to get accustomed to the rhythm of the city. She finds a nursing job at the hospital; she seeks solace in books. New York buzzes with vitality, but as Tess goes about her days the shadow of loneliness that has characterised her life continues to accompany her.

In time, Tess befriends another Irish nurse, Anne, and the two women rent an apartment together. When Tess joins her flatmate on a picnic, she meets a young Irish lawyer named David. He reminds Tess of a quieter, brighter version of her brother, Oliver, and for the first time in her adult life she feels the pull of attraction:

She was aware of every breath, the flex of every muscle, where his eyes fell, his hands. To be this watchful, this attuned to a man, a stranger, excited and confused her. (pg.71)

Tess longs to see David again. We get a sense that she is wrestling with the uncertainty of these strange new feelings, torn between the possibility of love and a natural tendency to withdraw.

One of the most impressive things about this novel is the intensity of feeling Costello brings to Tess’ story. The prose is spare and controlled but the reader feels a sense of closeness to Tess – it’s as if we have near complete access to her thoughts and emotions. This next quote should help illustrate the style – Tess and David are alone together at Anne’s wedding reception:

He looked out across the lawn, into the twilight. In the silence that ensued she arrived at a complete understanding of him. Recalling this moment later she could not say how she had come to this understanding, only that she had, she had fathomed something deep in him. It was more than fellow feeling. It was as if she had perceived all the joy and fear and pain that had ever entered his heart, and he had let her. For an instant he had let her love him. (pg. 83)

This is quite a difficult novel to review without revealing key aspects of the plot, and to say any more might be a step too far.

Academy Street is a poignant novel, the deeply moving story of a quiet life. The tone is achingly melancholy, but there are moments of intense beauty amidst the heartache.

Costello has a great eye for detail, aspects that add a sense of authenticity or something extra to the narrative. To give you an example, there is a telling moment as Tess leaves the family home to fly to America. She turns her head to the lone ash among a group of beech trees and sees for the first time ‘a band of barbed wire embedded in the trunk, the flesh forced to grow over the spikes in pained little folds and swellings.’ A reflection, perhaps, of the hurt in her life. Religion and Biblical references also feature in the novel, particularly the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.

I’ll end with a favourite quote from this notable debut novel. Tess has never enjoyed a particularly close relationship with her father. Prior to flying to America, there comes a moment when Tess reaches an understanding with him, and she catches a glimpse of everything he has suffered:

A peaceful lull falls on the kitchen and she looks at him. ‘Will I cut your hair?’ she asks. He turns his head towards her, and she waits to be denounced. He looks at her, baffled, stunned, as if he has suddenly found himself somewhere else. His chin begins to quiver, and he looks down. She is flooded with tender feelings for him. She sees for the first time all he has endured. (pg. 54)

I read Academy Street to participate in Reading Ireland Month, hosted by Cathy at 746 Books.

Several other bloggers have reviewed this novel – they include Naomi (The Writes of Women), Eric (Lonesome Reader), Kim (Reading Matters), Susan (A Life in Books) and Clare (A Little Blog of Books).

Academy Street is published by Canongate. Source: personal copy (eBook). Book 14/20 in my #TBR20.