... beautifully reissued with an effusive introduction by John Banville ... passions, hatreds and heartbreaks are hidden amid the prosaic effects of the drawing room and the boudoir, like a leopard camouflaged by savannah grass. Bowen (1899-1973) was a master of concealment, and though her stories deal in the ordinary and the everyday, they are disturbed by the immense spectral presence of the unspoken.
Bowen’s range is in full view in this collection. There are lopsided romances, social comedy and tales of suspense. 'The Demon Lover' is her most famous ghost story, but 'The Cat Jumps' is equally atmospheric ... The setting for most of these stories – the world Bowen knew – is solidly upper-middle class. (The opulence of this Everyman edition, with its beribboned glamour, seems fitting.) Her characters can be snobbish, and Bowen skewers this mercilessly ... Bowen had genius, but rather than delivering fully on 'the new form', she paved the way, becoming, as her biographer Victoria Glendinning put it, the link between Virginia Woolf and Muriel Spark ... Like Woolf, like Spark, her language is clear but her effects complex, creating shimmering reflections of reality, her world recognisable but just out of reach.
[Bowen's] stories are remarkable in countless ways. For a start, the earliest of them, such as 'Daffodils', are as good as those when she was at the height of her powers ... Bowen’s language is opaline and mesmerising. Overwrought characters play out their part against a backdrop conjured with painterly style, the fall of light through an evening window or shadows against a wall, almost as significant as the storyline itself ... Bowen ruthlessly plumbs psychological depths. This is not done coldly, but with needle-sharp precision. It is tempting to wonder if her happy early childhood were the bedrock from which she was to observe and measure a world that her characters, mean or decent, careless or sensitive, must negotiate all alone.
To the late Anglo-Irish writer, the short story was not a time-filler between work on novels. Bowen appreciated the form’s separate place in literature, and her contribution to it was outstanding—not so much in terms of innovation as in maintaining a tradition of excellence. Her complete stories now have been brought together, and they constitute a vital tribute to her sensibility as a writer. She reaches subtly, seemingly effortlessly, into the minds of her characters, to the core of motives and feelings. One aches at her delicacy, sensing the robustness of the vision guiding her refined, sensitive hand. The influence of Henry James and Virginia Woolf is apparent, but Bowen is no imitator. An essential acquisition.
That’s what makes Bowen’s writing so cunning: it’s all there, yet it’s never, until the last moment, obvious ... the reader who comes to these 79 stories for the first time might feel a bit overwhelmed. The things that make Bowen’s work brilliant – her ability to shift between the interior and the exterior; her swift changes in point-of-view; her oscillations between storytelling and social commentary – are also what make it challenging. In a sense, to read Bowen you must already know her: you must have warmed up the right muscles and be prepared to read backwards as well as forwards. And sideways too ... this collection attempts to assert Bowen’s place in the canon ... Of course the 'aboutness' of any is difficult pin down. There is so much contained in each. Even on a granular, sentence-level, worlds unfold ... There is a reason why, down the years, Bowen’s work has been described as realist by some, experimental by others. It is both ... The reader who buys this collection must be prepared for such uncertainty. To get the most out of Bowen’s stories, you must become a student of them. They ask to be read again and again. Their architecture works best when lived in.