‘A Day in the Dark’ by Elizabeth Bowen

I only discovered this story last week when Tessa Hadley recommended it during our discussion of Bowen’s novel The Death of the Heart on Backlisted. In her introduction to her own selection of Bowen’s stories, Hadley calls it “a brilliantly suggestive scrap of a story” and so it proves. I’d read and enjoyed other Bowen stories before our discussion, but this one packs a novel’s worth of emotional insight into a few short pages. Set in a small Irish town, the fifteen-year-old Barbie is sent by her uncle to return a magazine to his brother’s widow. The conversation that runs between the young girl and old woman reveals to Barbie that she has fallen in love with her uncle, while simultaneously destroying her innocent enjoyment of it. “My conversation with Miss Banderry did not end where I leave off recording it. But at that point memory is torn across, as might be an intolerable page.” When she next sees her uncle: “He was not a lord, only a landowner. Facing Moher, he was all carriage and colouring: he wore his life like he wore his coat”. The pain of the door to her childhood slamming behind her is still fresh in the narrator’s heart and mind: “Literature, once one knows it, drains away some of the shockingness out of life. But when I met her I was unread, my susceptibilities were virgin. I refuse to fill in her outline retrospectively: I show you only what I saw at the time. Not what she was, but what she did to me.” That’s what only the greatest stories do, and I’m delighted to have been introduced to this one.

First published in Botteghe Oscure, 1955 and in the collection A Day in the Dark and Other Stories, Jonathan Cape, 1965 and available in Selected Stories, edited by Tessa Hadley, Vintage Classics 2021

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