Book Review: The House in Paris by Elizabeth Bowen

“You feel most foreign when you no longer belong where you did…”

195993Read: 21st, June, 2018

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Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes, 9 seconds. Contains 1432 words

My Rating: 4 Stars

Description: One of Elizabeth Bowen’s most artful and psychologically acute novels, The House in Paris is a timeless masterpiece of nuance and construction, and represents the very best of Bowen’s celebrated work.

When eleven-year-old Henrietta arrives at the Fishers’ well-appointed house in Paris, she is prepared to spend her day between trains looked after by an old friend of her grandmother’s. Little does Henrietta know what fascinations the Fisher house itself contains–along with secrets that have the potential to topple a marriage and redeem the life of a peculiar young boy. By the time Henrietta leaves the house that evening, she is in possession of the kind of grave knowledge that is usually reserved only for adults.

First published in 1935, The House in Paris, is the fifth book written by Elizabeth Bowen and as I have come to know, it is also one of the best books written by her. This is the first Bowen that I have read and most probably also the last.

In the book, the writer beautifully described the surroundings and did a wonderful job in capturing all the details of the external world in a book which was being shaken up by the internal world of the characters. I like descriptive novels, I complain about fewer descriptions in books but this book was over the top in that department. I could actually visualize the surroundings when I read this book, it was a good experience, but then those visuals were there throughout the book which was insane, I got tired of it. The book wasn’t boring but a slow-burner.

In the book, the writer defined many moments using inanimate objects and bring life to them, created visuals to show the passion and the tension and added depth to what the characters were feeling and thinking.

Some examples:

“Like rain on the taxi windows, soft affections and melancholies blurred her mind; she saw inanimate things as being friendly to love.”

“Max looked at me like someone through bars in a death cell; to part is to leave him to what must be. The law takes you away.”

The concept of telling the story was odd, I never read anything in this format. She used this tri-partite structure where the first and the last part were written in “The Present” and the middle part was written in “The Past” with 10 years gap between the present and the past. The second part, The Past, was the longest of all the three parts, it took me 10 days to go through it, some days I dreaded to pick it up again. All the while I was reading this book, I was wondering if I would ever reach to the end of it. I liked the parts that were written in ‘The Present’ and most importantly I loved the last part of the book.

The story mostly dealt with the complexities of human relationships, ‘of mother and child’, ‘of lovers’, ‘of husband and wife’, and most importantly and very discreetly she also talked about ‘friendship’. There were multiple plots within the story and the writer played well with both time and point of views of different characters. Pure emotions were expressed without any corruption or falsity that actually helped in knowing the characters well, good or bad.

In the beginning, I thought the two children Leopold and Henrietta were the main characters but with time reader gets to know who the central characters really are. These two kids are actually used as a device to show reality in a different view, of how kids perceive the reality and assess it besides the central characters actually show us the reality they lived. So, we get to see two realities, the one that was perceived and the one that actually happened. This is the case of hidden realities and exposing them to the reader.

“Grownup people form a secret society, they must have something to hold by; they dare not say to a child: ‘There is nothing you do know here.”

Children think their parents’ life start with them, they see their parents realities and create their parents identities in their mind with what they see while living with them, from all that happens in the present. They don’t have any idea of what happened before they were born, what these individuals went through and what shaped their identities and personalities. There are so many secrets that are hidden beneath those faces that might never be uncovered and they have no idea about them. Sometimes those hidden realities make no much difference and sometimes they ruin families and lives.

So, yes the adults are actually the central characters and most importantly Leopold’s mother, Karen. In the past she was someone’s lover and someone’s child; now in the present, she is a mother and a wife. Throughout the book we see her relationships and roles she played in them, we read about how each relationship shaped her and how they were responsible in forming her identity and how one relationship affected the other relationship. Most importantly this is a story of love gone wrong, where passion, love, and betrayal create the central theme.

I’m not sure what was the role of Henrietta but I think she was also a device to explore Leopold because children kind of communicate with each other and also to assess the situation for readers that was unfolding in front of her in the Fisher’s house. Since she was not part of the family secrets and drama, she gave readers an honest view of the whole situation as she saw it unfold.

Ms. Fisher was one of the characters that I felt bad for, she was hit by series of disappointments in the past, and she was the only one who took good control over the situation and handled it with some sense. She was a giver, a soft person who took care of things and people.

What I found weird was how the conversations were led in this book. The characters talked in a very odd way, I don’t think people really speak like that. I quite didn’t like the conversations. The essence behind them yes, the conversations no.

The story itself I felt was secondary, the most important aspects were the characters and their doings. The ghosts of the past also influenced everything that was happening in the present, we get to know about that in a narrative in the last part, where it is revealed what Karen actually feels in the present and what she is going through and why she can’t face her past. I totally understand what she feels, and only time I sympathized with her was in the last part. It was disturbing to think about how she must feel now about everything that happened to her and how her decisions molded her life to come to this point, the whole thing made me quite uncomfortable.

Of all the three parts, the last part was more structured but none of them were very well defined. We don’t really get an ending that concludes everything but there is a hope that things might get a little better, at least that is what I felt while reading the ending.

I would say, it was an interesting read, yes, it was slow and I slog through it but that didn’t stop me from engaging with these characters who were filled with flaws and imperfections and the whole idea seemed very intriguing to me, also the reason I continued reading it till the end.

Some Quotes from the book:

“But you must grow faster, more strongly than other people. There is no question, for you, of having someone to cherish you. For the man you may be, that your father was not, the father and mother have only been instruments. Their faces and names do not matter. By deluding themselves with each other, they served you without knowing.”

“Goodbyes breed a sort of distaste for whoever you say goodbye to; this hurts, you feel, this must not happen again. Any other meeting will only lead back to this. If today goodbye is not final, someday it will be.”

“The mystery about sex comes from confusion and terror: to a mind on which these have not yet settled there is nothing you cannot tell. Grownup people form a secret society, they must have something to hold by; they dare not say to a child: ‘There is nothing you do know here.”

“Never to lie is to have no lock to your door, you are never wholly alone.”

“There is no end to the violations committed by children on children, quietly talking alone.”

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