Books from My Shelves: Two books by Elizabeth Bowen

Bowen books

It was 1987 or ’88, before the days of cable TV. The local TV stations seemed to be totally random in its choice of films to screen and there were lots of duds, but the occasional jewel.  One night, on RTM 2, there was Granada TV’s 1986 dramatisation of The Death of the Heart, based on the novel by Elizabeth Bowen. I had never heard of Bowen and I could not find her books in the bookstores in Singapore (there were no bookstores to speak of in my Malaysian hometown). However, National Junior College library had a copy of The Little Girls, and I managed to find a couple of volumes of short stories from the National University of Singapore library.

 

It wasn’t til 1989, while I was in England for an interview at the nursing college I’d applied to, that I finally found a copy of The Death of the Heart, in a secondhand bookshop in Hampstead. It was a 1949 hardback edition by Jonathan Cape for which I paid a pound.

The day before I’d found Bowen’s collected short stories (Penguin, 1983, £7.99, with illustrations by Joan Hassall) at Foyle’s (in London), where they shelf books according to publisher. I must have asked for her because I would not have known where to look. One didn’t know anything back in the days before the Internet and Google. (Arguably, one still doesn’t know a thing now.)

 

 

 

 

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Books from My Shelves: Darkness Falls From the Air by Nigel Balchin

I’m going to start doing a series featuring books from my shelves because it’s something I love to read about in other blogs: accounts of personal book collections; favourite childhood reads; books that belonged to parents and grandparents; treasured flea market finds, that sort of thing.

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I’m kicking off the series with Darkness Falls From the Air by Nigel Balchin, a rather obscure English author from the 40s and 50s. Darkness Falls is set during the second World War and written while it was happening. It was published in 1942 and the copy from my shelves is  the ‘Services Edition’, published in 1945.

I found this book in the family bookcase when I was in my early teens and read it without understanding it. However, I loved the writing style, especially the dialogue, which is not how people speak in Malaysia, but was strangely familiar and pleasing anyway.

The novel is about Bill Sarratt, an English civil servant who is living in London during the worst of the Blitz and how he deals with the bureaucratic nonsense at his office, and also the affair his wife, Marcia, is having with a melodramatic poet.

nb3 copyrightI found it a fascinating and horrifying read at fourteen. Bill’s wit and sarcasm was very funny and alien, and his lifestyle exciting and glamorous despite his wry and disparaging descriptions of how the war had disrupted London nightlife and made everything dreary and difficult. Then there was the situation with his wife, which I did not comprehend at first and when I did, did not believe. I still find it a little hard to imagine a husband being so cool about his wife’s infidelity, but it is very much who Bill Sarratt is. Also, I happen to be currently reading Balchin’s Separate Lies (originally published as A Way Through the Wood) and the protagonist is another man who is strangely cool and calm when he discovers that his wife has been unfaithful. Perhaps this was something Balchin experienced in his personal life and was trying to work through in his fiction. In anycase, I find that, at fifty, it’s still something I am interested in thinking about. Certainly, in both books, the two men’s reactions are very much in character and not at all implausible. It’s my own feelings that are at odds with how they behave, but that makes the stories more interesting.

nb5 backMy copy of Darkness Falls belonged to my late mother and was ‘produced for the Services Central Book Depot Artillery House, Handel Street, London, W.C. 1 for circulation to the Fighting Forces of the Allied Nations’.

I don’t know when my mother acquired the book. She would have been twelve in 1945 and the story is quite a grim one, although told in a light, offhand tone. However, I wasn’t much older when I first read it and, anyway, don’t all twelve-year-olds read books too mature for them? Her signature on the epigraph page is a bit wobbly so she probably wasn’t much past twelve.

On the last page of the novel, she writes ‘The End’ a couple of times as if practising her penmanship. It’s precious and one reason why I will never part with this book.