Wednesday, July 23, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene

Phew! I’ve finished another of my Back-to-the-Classics challenge books, hosted by Books and Chocolate. This was my "Classic about War" choice: The Heart of the Matter by Graham Greene. When I was making my selections, I looked into this book and read that it was set during World War II in a British colony on the coast of West Africa. The fact that it is wartime influences the plot of the book, but I thought the war would play a bigger role than it does. (How can a WWII book have so little to do with the war?) I chose it for the unusual setting and because I’ve never read Greene. It was a difficult but ultimately rewarding book.

The sad hero of the story is Henry Scobie, an assistant police commissioner in a West African coastal town. While the heat, humidity, and colonial social structure are vividly described, I never quite got the sense of where this was actually taking place. (Although it is apparently supposed to be Sierra Leone.) Scobie is scrupulously honest and does his job with a plodding efficiency. He has been assistant commissioner for fifteen years and everyone considers him to be a good man. The commissioner trusts him. However, this counts for nothing since, as the book opens, the commissioner is retiring and someone else is being named to replace him.

Scobie is at a weary stage in his life and doesn’t take the news too badly. But he is upset for his wife. Louise is lonely, depressed, and bored. She came to this town to be with her husband but never intended to be stuck there for so many years. She doesn’t fit in socially. And, she and Scobie have grown apart. Also, they had a daughter who died. So she’s miserable, and learning that her husband was passed over for promotion—humiliated—will be the last straw.

Other things are going on, too. A new man has come to town, Wilson. Although he’s supposed to be an accountant, he is actually a government spy. Wilson takes a liking to Louise and, therefore, a disliking to Scobie. And there are two Syrians, cousins, who are rivals and who try to play the British to their own advantage. One of them, Yusef, attaches himself to Scobie.

Scobie’s main difficulty is that he feels responsible for keeping Louise happy (an impossible task) as much as for keeping the peace in the town. He doesn’t love her anymore. He pities her. She is so upset by his lack of advancement that she can no longer bear to stay there. In order to help her leave, he needs money to book her passage on a ship. The bank won’t lend him a sufficient sum, so he is forced to borrow it from Yusef. Accepting money from one of the Syrians is not a wise move. Even though it’s a loan with interest, it puts him under obligation and it makes him look suspicious.

His wife sails away. While she’s gone, a lifeboat carrying a few survivors from a shipwrecked boat (casualties from the war) arrive. (There is evidence throughout the book that there is a war going on. They have black-outs at night. They are aware of the far-off fighting. They worry about ships arriving safely at their destinations. They have censors checking their mail and telegrams. And one of Scobie’s jobs is searching ships for diamonds and other contraband or coded messages that might be important to the Germans. But the war still seems very far away and peripheral to the story.) Anyway, the lifeboat arrives, and with it, Helen Rolt.

Helen was a nineteen-year-old newlywed who set out on the ship with her husband. Now she is a nineteen-year-old widow. Scobie takes to visiting her, as do some of the other villagers. But it’s Scobie who makes her feel safe. And then, they begin an affair.

This can’t end well. The man who has been so straight and honest all his life is slipping. Although he thinks he loves Helen, he begins finding similarities between Helen and Louise and before long, he pities her and finds himself trapped by her as well. Then Louise returns, and things go downhill even faster. Scobie is not built for deceit.

Woven throughout is Scobie’s struggle with Catholicism. It both sustains him and oppresses him.

The book was difficult to read partly because of the writing style. The omniscient narrator made me feel too distant from the characters. They were all sort of disembodied. It was so distant that I was uninterested. It was one of those books that I could stop reading mid-paragraph to go do something else.

It was also difficult because there was a lot of aimlessness in the book. I got the sense that these people were leading very dull lives. (Even with war, spying, adultery. . .their lives were pretty dull.) That may have been the point. Scobie would have much preferred being left alone to having found Helen Rolt. Falling in love, or finding a replacement woman to pity, gave him a brief period of happiness but it didn’t last. Still, it was Scobie’s downfall, his spiraling out of control, that made the book interesting. His struggle to reconcile things that could not be reconciled is what make this book tragic and oddly beautiful.

Since this book has been on my shelf forever, I’m also adding it to my TBR pile challenge hosted by Bookish.


  1. Hmm, I've never felt any urge to read Greene and after reading your review, I don't think this one would work for me. But it always feels good to complete a book that has been on your TBR forever!

  2. I've not read much Graham Greene, but adultery and Catholicism seem to be defining themes of the ones that I have read. Also this: "I got the sense that these people were leading very dull lives. (Even with war, spying, adultery. . .their lives were pretty dull"

    I'm not sure how I feel about Greene. Unlike many other classic writers, his works have a decidedly dated feel and I'm not convinced that he has as much relevance today as his fans think he does. Then again, I'm sure that lots of folks say that about Jane Austen, whom I think is just as applicable today as she was when she was writing. :-)