Have you ever settled down to a new author, really confident that you’ll enjoy the book in front of you. You’ve heard great things about the author from those whose opinions you respect. You like all the authors to whom this author is compared. It’s the right period, right genre, right topic. And yet… somehow it doesn’t work at all.
That was my experience with Elizabeth Bowen’s The Last September.
I’ve read Bowen’s name so often in books about the period, heard it in conversation, always put her down as someone I’ll really enjoy, one day, and then… no. It’s not that I thought the book was *bad* – I could see that the writing was very good – but somehow it was a struggle. Despite being quite a short book, I lost track of who was who (or whom was who, or something) and what was going on. The novel, by the way, is ‘a comedy of manners set in the time of the Irish Troubles.’ It’s set in a big family house, where tennis-parties remain the focus, against the strife and riots. (By the way, the book cover shown isn’t the one I read, but it interested me because it’s the same cover image that Persephone used for their Persephone Classics version of Cheerful Weather For The Wedding by Julia Strachey, blogged about here, not Mariana by Monica Dickens as I wrote before…)
Sometimes I thought I was getting the hang of it. This paragraph is, I think, a great example of Bowen’s writing:
He listened, took off his trench-coat, stepped to the drawing-room door. The five tall windows stood open on rain and the sound of leaves, rain stuttered along the sills, the grey of the mirrors shivered. Polished tables were cold little lakes of light. The smell of sandalwood boxes, a kind of glaze on the air from all the chintzes numbed his earthy vitality, he became all ribs and uniform.
And so it goes on. These moments, I could see that the writing is beautiful… but then I’d get lost and listless again. Perhaps it’s because Bowen’s writing is so often visually descriptive? I can’t ‘see’ things when I read – visual description rarely works for me, unless I concentrate fiercely on it. Hmm.
I was talking to someone at lunch the other day who told me that The Heat of the Day is much better, and that I shouldn’t give up on Elizabeth Bowen yet… can anyone else convince me to persevere? Explain perhaps why I struggled? Or give examples of their own stumbling blocks in books or authors that they fully anticipated loving?