Stella Rodney lives on the top floor of a house on Weymouth Street near Regent's Park. Working in a secret branch of government during World War II she is skilled at living a veiled existence both in her public and private lives. Despite the fact that details surrounding her divorce from Victor have been misconstrued, Stella leaves the past behind and moves forward with strength and confidence to live independently.
One evening she has a visit from a man named Harrison who delivers a bombshell. Telling Stella that her lover, Robert, is a spy for Nazi Germany, he offers to withhold the information in return for a sexual relationship with her. So begins the unraveling of what is true, what is false and deciding which man is being deceitful. Meanwhile her son, Roderick, serving in the Army, learns that he is to inherit the family home in Ireland (mirroring Elizabeth's inheritance of Bowen's Court). Feeling he needs the blessing of Cousin Francis's widow, Nettie, he travels to a home for the aged and insane where he ends up discovering some unsettling news about his father. But is the narrator reliable?
While this book has been described as Bowen's 'war novel' the reader is acutely aware that people have the ability to wreak as much havoc with lies as with bombs. Even something as benign as a visit to Holme Dene, Robert's crumbling family estate, is cloaked in secrecy as he and Stella keep the fact that they are a couple secret from relatives. Colder surroundings you would be hard pressed to find as the inhabitants even jealously guard their butter rations at mealtime.
Bowen's descriptions of London during the war are both life affirming...
'The very soil of the city at this time seemed to generate more strength: in parks the outsize dahlias, velvet and stretched out perfect against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour.'
'You dared not envisage sleep. Apathetic, the injured and dying in the hospitals watched light change on walls which might fall tonight Those rendered homeless sat where they had been sent; or, worse, with the obstinacy of animals retraced their steps to look for what was no longer there.'
But while other novels from this era are full of people scurrying for shelter during air raids, there seems to be a more relaxed feeling about it all in this novel. At one point near the end of the book, Stella receives a visitor as the guns are blaring in the distance only causing a slight delay in her conversation. Defiantly perhaps, she has taken yet another top floor flat at a time when others are living half of their lives underground.
There is a backdrop storyline involving Louie Lewis who shares a flat on Chilcombe Street with Connie. They also offer an opportunity for Bowen to expose social and class distinctions, of which she was very much aware, as the ladies share a bed with noisy springs, work in a factory and wear gloves with grimy seams. More secrets permeate their storyline and as skillfully as one could imagine, Bowen brings these characters together in one of the most unforgettable stories I will ever read.
To anyone who is still unaware of this author's talent, yes there are times when Bowen's richly layered passages full of observations slow you down and make you work but I beg of you, do not shy away! She is sublime, a genius, a doyenne, and with this book has taken the crown as my absolute favourite author.