My Photo
Location: Dublin, Republic of, Ireland

Sunday, 11 May 2008

Reading Friends and Relations by Elizabeth Bowen

by Suzan Abrams

Last night over a glass of wine, I finished reading Elizabeth Bowen's novel, Friends and Relations with astonishing alacrity. Here then a famous old Bowen paperback and one that I had happily stumbled on the day before, at the popular market square in Temple Bar, while straining to the feet-tapping tunes of a faraway fiddle.

The ancient-stained dog-eared paperback had been squeezed confidently enough into a hardy cardbox box with stacks of priceless reads. My book which is a reprinted 1946 version features an outdated orange Penguin cover. The novel was first published in 1931. Someone had pencilled the number 63 on it. The signature of a Mr. Peter M. Nelson rushed across the first page in a bold scrawl shaped from black ink. Soon after, this was followed by an assortment of messy jottings. In an instant, I wanted to make the little scarred book mine and treasure it as an unexpected gift from a long ago invisible reader who may well as easily I remind myself, be sadly dead!

While the story featuring discreet gossip and high-living amongst a family of gossipy cousins, lonely widows, husbands, wives and sisterly rivalry had caught me with rapt attention...so much that I read the book with a greedy absorption; I had turned the pages in a far swifter manner than I intended, so intent was I on the family skeletons that threatened to poke out with dangerous and glinting expressions from under the upper-crust genteel lifestyle of a wealthy English home; in this typical austere Modern novel. Of course, beneath the vivid descriptions of cotton sundresses, studied dinner parties and holiday trips to Britanny, each character's restless emotions and enduring vulnerability caterpillar-ed through the plot with the same starched intensity as any other lover bent on a turbulent and forbidden affair might.

Bowen takes her time with the engaging pursuit of nosy gossip. She spends the first half of her book, kindly sketching well-meaning relations and close-knit friends at play with a similar sunny rigamarole to that of say, musical chairs. The soap-opera-ish drama hits the reader like a sudden thunderclap only from the middle section.

In the way of meddlesome gossip and secret liaisons, comedy is evident. A number of people may come and leave the room all at once, doing altogether different things at the very same time. Bowen's talent at capturing important crowded scenes with grace and elegance could make a reader feel poised for a noisy party flair on the ready. The wry humour is subtly drawn from failings and confusions tailed at different courses of the plot. It feels like having something stuck between your teeth. There you are trying to read a serious novel when all you really want to do is to afford it a broad smile. Oh..for the itch of a niggling toothpick-clad humour.

There's also a serene portrait of a younger Elizabeth Bowen at the back of the book. It was quite interesting to read her rare lines where she said that the "writing occupation" took up all of her time so that she never owned a hobby. Any free time she had was afforded to travel. She loved visiting other lands, could not keep still for too long and would often take off to her two favourite countries, France and Italy. Elizabeth Bowen's ancestors came from Wales, although she was born in Dublin. Married to Alan Cameron of the BBC, Bowen made her home in London. She also said she liked the country particularly Kent and Oxfordshire and she loved going to films on the outset of a spare moment.

Credit: Picture of an older Elizabeth Bowen courtesy of EPDLP.com

Labels: ,

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home