17 February 2014

Eva Trout by Elizabeth Bowen

Elizabeth Bowen has swept me away, once again, and this is the third time I've reached the end of one of her books feeling absolutely sick with suspense.  For some reason I had the impression that the book's namesake was going to be a lonely figure who reflects a sort of spinster ideal.  Far from it.  There is enough psychological madness to unfurl and dissect within these pages to keep a reader on the edge of their armchair and Eva is a character who will stay with me for a very, very long time.

The novel is set in the late 1950s and begins in January with Eva driving most of the Dancey family through the English countryside, coming to a stop at a neglected castle.  'This is where we were to have spent our honeymoon' she states quietly.  The children in the group range in age from seven to thirteen and have absolutely no idea what she's on about.  Their mother is busy watching from the car, studying Eva is more like it.

At twenty-four, the heiress is supervised by an unlikable fellow named Constantine, a former friend and most likely lover, of her father, Willy, who committed suicide years ago.  Eva's mother, Cissie, died in a plane crash when Eva was only two months old while on a dalliance with her lover.  While Constantine quite likes the financial side of being tied to Eva he is more than happy to turn around and pay Mr and Mrs Arble to house and care for her daily needs.  They are also only to happy for the extra money but I felt so sad that the money came before Eva's well-being, especially given Constantine's knowledge of the family history...

'We must face this:  Eva's capacity for making trouble, attracting trouble, stewing trouble around her, is quite endless.  She, er, begets trouble - a dreadful gift.  And the more so for being inborn.  You may not realise for how long and how painfully closely I've known that family.  The Trouts have, one might say, a genius for unreality: even Willy was prone to morose distortions.  Hysteria was, of course, the domain of Cissie.  Your, er, generous defence of Cissie won't, I hope, entirely blind you to how much of what was least desirable in Cissie is in her daughter.  Eva is tacitly hysterical.'

Iseult Arble taught in a boarding school and developed a strong attachment to Eva.  Having no children themselves, the Arbles enjoy having her around but eventually they realize she seems to be coming between them.  Deeply upset by betrayal, Eva packs up her meagre belongings and sets out for a house she has rented in Broadstairs called Cathay..  Her first night in the house, which needs loads of work, quickly makes clear how unprepared she is for independent living and responsibility which in turn worries the agent.

'Not the least of this unfortunate agent's fears are, that you may blow Cathay up by tampering with, er, intricate gas appliances, or burn the place down - he scented pyromania in your excitability when he struck matches.' 

Henry Dancey is put in charge of selling her Jaguar to raise funds until Eva's trust fund matures in a few months when she turns twenty-five.  Mr Arble arrives one night after discovering an address on a postcard sent to Henry.  It is during an encounter with Mrs Arble a few months later when Eva is asked to join the couple for Christmas that Eva announces she will be having a child by then.  Nine months after Mr Arble's visit.  So begins the second part of the book, picking up eight years later and all involved are just as mystified by what Eva has engineered and why.

From here on in the book takes on a sort of noir feeling with frenzied telegrams, missed calls, quick escapes and extreme panic.  The comparison of a thrush that flies into a church and its subsequent struggle to find freedom while a character sits in a pew coming to terms with his own struggle is absolutely breathtaking.  Needless to say I was transfixed for the last few chapters and it would have taken the house burning down around me to make me put the book down.  The ending is explosive.

Once I finish a book I like to search around for other readers' thoughts and can only shake my head at those who didn't find Eva Trout to be one of Bowen's masterpieces.  Come to think of it, I don't understand why this title isn't as widely known as The Heat of the Day or The Death of the Heart.  Eva Trout made the Man Booker shortlist in 1970 but lost to Bernice Ruben's The Elected Member,  which I can only surmise must be bloody fantastic to trump Elizabeth Bowen.

   

11 comments:

  1. so, two things... oh, that feeling of reading something wonderful and trying to find someone who feels the same way about it, and not finding same. And second, I have still not read E.B., what is WRONG with me? :)

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    1. Tell me about it, Audrey! I've been hoping to meet someone who has shelves and shelves of Persephone and Virago titles but five years on I am still faced with blank stares in my little corner of Burlington. Ever hopeful though!
      You're just so busy reading mysteries and Wharton...two things I need to delve into more. But when you do.....

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  2. I've just pulled it down from the shelf. And reluctantly slid it back because I'm supposed to be working. And not reading blogs or Bowen!
    I read this so many years ago that I can't remember anything about it.

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    1. I'm counting on not remembering anything about Bowen's books at some point so I can enjoy them all over again. And don't let me get you into trouble with writing deadlines!

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  3. "They" say this isn't one of her best, but it sounds perfectly wonderful to me. I've been meaning to pick up Elizabeth Bowen again ever since reading The House in Paris.

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    1. From the very first page of my first experience reading Bowen's work I was smitten but she's not everyone's cup of tea. Fair enough. But if you enjoyed The House in Paris then don't stop there, JoAnn.

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  4. I love Bowen but I've never read this one. I'm off now to Amazon to order a copy. Thanks!

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    1. There are trips to France in this one as well, Harriet, so that will be another source of appeal for you. If you don't enjoy this one then I will eat my hat!

      Watch for the section where Eva is planning how she will upgrade the house in Broadstairs. She mentions a large screen television and a computer! It made me laugh at the thought of what those two things would have looked like to Bowen in the 60s and what the reality is now.

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  5. I'm off to see if my library can oblige. If not it will be Amazon!
    By the way, how are your shoulders?

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    1. Ever so slowly showing signs of improvement, Margaret! My range of motion is much better than last month so it's safe to say I am well into the 'thaw' phase. I can't tell you how exciting it is to do small things like reach over my head but internal rotation is still not great as in being able to reach behind to do up my bra. But it will come...a new physiotherapist I'm seeing on Monday should be quite helpful in seeing me through this last stage. Thanks for asking!
      All the best with Eva Trout!

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  6. So glad to hear about this one by Elizabeth Bowen. She is one of my favorite authors. Recently I discovered To the North which I loved and now I will read your recommendation.

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