LitStack Recs: The Death of the Heart & The Story of Ferdinand the Bull

The Death of the Heart, by Elizabeth Bowen

Dig out your angora muffler and your ski gloves, because the temperature is about to drop. On the page, anyway. Here’s the opening of Elizabeth Bowen’s 1938 novel:  

That morning’s ice, no more than a brittle film, had cracked and was now floating in segments. These tapped together or, parting, left channels of dark water, down which swans in slow indignation swam. The island stood in frozen woody brown disk: it was no between three and four in the afternoon. a sort of breath from the clay, from the city outside the park, condensing, made the air unclear; through this, the trees round the lake soared frigidly up. Bronze cold of January bound the sky and the landscape: the sky was shut to the sun—but the swans, the rims of the ice, the pallid withdrawn Regency terraces had an unnatural burnish, as though cold were light.

I love this novel, in part, for its chilliness, but I can appreciate how some readers might not find Bowen’s tone to their liking. Set in London between the World Wars, the story of adolescent Portia Quayne, who falls for a boy named Eddie, doesn’t sound all that cold, but Portia’s mother has recently died and as the novel opens, Portia has just moved in with her half-brother Thomas (Portia’s father via an affair with her mother) and his wife Anna. For me, the distant tone that defines its style conveys the isolation, the self-consciousness, and the desperation of what it feels like to be alone in the world.

The is something momentous about the height of winter. Steps rang on the bridges, and along the black walks. This weather had set in; it would freeze harder tonight.

The Modern Library Association included The Death of the Heart in its list of One Hundred  Best Novels.

—Lauren Alwan

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