Sunday, 28 September 2008

The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

Shifting narrative perspectives and timescales work to great effect in this story of an illicit love affair in 1920s England and France. We meet, through Henrietta - a young girl travelling through Paris - the outcome of this affair: Leopold. The children, and their combative, cruel encounter, are well-drawn and convincing. Bowen's long, central section of the book, "The Past", addresses to Leopold the account of the affair between English Karen and French-Jewish Max; Leopold has been protected from the truth of his origins by his adoptive family. Occasionally Bowen reminds us that the narrative is for Leopold, addressing the reader as "you, Leopold"; this gives the impression of reading a private letter, as Leopold does in the first chapter. Returning to the present, the effect of Leopold's birth and existence on his mother's marriage is shown through a couple of pages of stage dialogue, attributed to He and She; the pronouns depersonalise the difficulties and effects of a very personal and complex story.

In the background are several sinister, ailing women: Mme Fisher, the witch-like, omniscient queen of the eponymous house; she is echoed in the more benign character of Aunt Violet, whose death triggers the events and emotional upheavals that bring us Leopold. Mrs Arbuthnot, Henrietta's grandmother, completes a trio of powerful and sometimes manipulative old ladies, puppet-masters moving the main players around the continent. This sets up a tension between Bowen's presentation of Max and Karen as self-possessed, dynamic lovers in "The Past" and the narrative's emphasis on them as characters, foregrounding their artificiality and continually reminding us that they are stereotypes of romantic fiction. This tension is repeated in other aspects of the book: bonds of affection are stretched and undermined, then reformed with apparently greater strength; and ultimately gives the novel a resonance and a complexity that are deeply rewarding.

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