Elizabeth Bowen’s “The Hotel” is only the second book I’ve read by this author – which is a crying shame, bearing in mind that her books have been on Mount TBR for, oooh, at least 25 years. Shocking, isn’t it? I finally broke my duck and read “The Death of the Heart” last year which I did enjoy very much. “The Hotel” is Bowen’s first novel, quite a slim volume, and I was inspired to pick it up after reading Booksnob’s lovely review here.

b06ffce175915fc59344d4c6177434d414f4141

TH is set on the Italian Riviera of the 1920s. The eponymous building house a variety of British ex-pats spending their summer months in the sun – amongst others, we have the Misses Pym and Fitzgerald, loving companions; Mr. and Mrs. Lee-Mittison, heartily enjoying the company of younger guests and organising picnics and outings; the Lawrence family, with their perfectionist father and three lively daughters; Mrs. Kerr, a manipulative, middle-aged woman; and young Sydney Warren and her cousin Tessa. Sydney is in thrall to Mrs. Kerr, and it seems as if there are lots of female emotions under the building’s roof, as the book opens with Miss Pym and Miss Fitzgerald having a dramatic quarrel.

Into this volatile mix are thrown the middle-aged Rev. James Milton, who instantly offends two of the lady guests by using a bathroom they’ve reserved for their exclusive use; and Mrs. Kerr’s son Ronald, a strange, surly character who seems out of the place in this genteel milieu. Milton is immediately struck by Sydney, who is displaced from Mrs. Kerr’s affections by Ronald, and the delicate balance maintained in the hotel is thrown out of alignment.

“It was another one of these idyllic evenings, agonizingly meaningless; the evening air brought out the scent of the lemons. The Lawrences, shrugging up their wraps round their shoulders, slid forward in their chairs luxuriously and sank down into themselves like cats into their fur. Thin blue smoke drifted away through the clearness.”

This is an intriguing novel in which, on the surface of things, not a great deal happens. However, underneath there is seething emotion of all sorts: the relationship between Sydney and Mrs Kerr is never entirely made clear (in the way that that of Misses Pym and Fitzgerald is) but Sydney obviously very much worships Mrs. Kerr. The latter is an unpleasant, manipulative character but ultimately pathetic as we see at the end when Sydney leaves. Milton is a sad specimen too, and exists more to be a foil for Sydney than anything else. The various ex-pats who live in the hotel are all in some way damaged and there are so many undercurrents that it’s rather alarming.

First off, I should say that the writing is quite beautiful, as you’d expect from Bowen, and the whole book is so atmospheric that I felt as if I was on the Riviera myself.

“Three days afterwards the weather along the coast was once more fulfilling the expectations of visitors. Only a little wind remained to disturb the sea, to rustle dryly through the palm-trees out on the promontory where the coast road disappeared towards Genoa and to rush to meet one round street corners with a disconcertingly ice-cold whistle. Against an opaque, bright blue sky the expressionless faces of the buildings had again their advertised and almost aching whiteness. The sounds, like the shadows, were exact and clear-cut, no longer blunted by the rain.”

Bowen is an expert at nuance and says plenty without actually saying it. Oddly enough, I found myself thinking that the writing was somehow like a hybrid of Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, with a slightly glacial quality to it. Her descriptions of the landscape and nature are spectacular and she’s expert at capturing how surroundings can affect mood. When a love-affair of sorts develops around Milton and Sydney, we are not surprised but it would be a foolish reader who expects a traditional happy ending from a Bowen book!

NPG x127602; Elizabeth Bowen by Bassano
I read this book quite rapidly for a Bowen, eager to find out what happens, and yet at the end I was left with a tiny feeling of dissatisfaction. I think this was because of the subsidiary characters – Bowen peoples the start of the book with a wonderful array, gradually introducing them one at a time, and yet once the Milton/Sydney plot takes off they are almost abandoned. The Lee-Mittisons in particular were a loss – a potential plot here of why they flitted around hotels with no children of their own was underdeveloped. And the Lawrence family, with the three marriageable daughters, could have been so much more. Much as I enjoyed this book, I was left with a nagging feeling of something missing – there were too many untold stories, lost characters and their tales, only hinted at in the narrative, and that niggled. It may be this was the effect that Bowen was striving for, to emphasise the transient, shallow nature of acquaintance in a hotel, but I personally felt there was a slight imbalance in the book when Sydney and Milton took centre stage.

However, this is a small quibble and I enjoyed The Hotel very much. The quality of Bowen’s writing alone makes her work worth investing time in and I very much look forward to reading more of her books in the future.

Advertisements