Set in an unnamed coastal town in West Africa in 1942, The Heart of the Matter is a wonderful read revealing a very deep understanding of human relationships.
We are first introduced to Edward Wilson, a newly arrived Brit, who hides his books of poetry to avoid potential ribbing. He becomes infatuated with the wife of the assistant police commissioner who admonishes his advances leaving him humiliated. He seems overly aware of the whereabouts of those around him, but he is not taken too seriously.
Henry Scobie is the seasoned assistant police commissioner and has been idling along in his life and career. He is known for his integrity in a town where deceit and dishonor are the accepted norms. Alas, he has nowhere to go but down, and down he does go. A gentleman’s loan (from a disreputable native) to secure his wife’s passage to a more pleasant South Africa is the catalyst that propels him downward. He gets in deep and each step seems to take him further down the path of no return.
Henry’s wife, Louise, is disappointed in her husband’s lack of ambition and feels isolated. She enjoys literature and socializing, in complete contrast to her spouse who, nevertheless feigns interest whilst she reads aloud and excuses himself early when they do venture out. She tires of Henry’s apathy and pity for her and soon departs to South Africa.
Helen Rolt washes ashore and into Henry’s life after her ship is torpedoed taking her newlywed husband’s life. She is an unsentimental and brash young woman who takes up with Henry and seems content with their secret rendezvous. This affair was a tad tough to swallow and further developement of this shallow character may have added to its credibility.
Greene’s Catholicism is evident and his descriptions of the conditioned mind of a Catholic and the rituals inside a church are dead on. He wrestles with suicide, infidelity, family tragedy, and deceit and draws a distinct line for the good man, who, once he steps over the line, seems destined for evil.
One could almost forget there was a war going on, but rather than focus on that, Greene instead delves in to the day to day life and relationships between the English and the natives and the relationships among the English themselves. His time as a British Intelligence Officer in Sierra Leone served him quite well while penning this gem.
It seemed to him that this was all he needed of love or friendship. He could be happy with no more in the world than this–the grinding van, the hot tea against his lips, the heavy damp weight of the forest, even the aching head, the loneliness.
The lights inside would have given an extraordinary impression of peace if one hadn’t known, just as the stars on this clear night gave also an impression of remoteness, security, freedom. If one knew, he wondered, the facts, would one have to feel pity even for the planets, if one reached what they called the heart of the matter?
He knew from experience how passion died away and how love went, but pity always stayed. Nothing ever diminished pity. The conditions of life nurtured it. There was only a single person in the world who was unpitiable, oneself.
He laid his pen down again and loneliness sat across the table opposite him. No man surely was less alone with his wife upstairs and his mistress little more than five hundred yards away up the hill, and yet it was loneliness that seated itself like a companion who doesn’t need to speak. It seemed to him that he had never been so alone before.
A conversation with Mr. Greene would be enthralling. I’d love to discuss his travels, his conversion to Catholicism, and so much more. Were it possible to gain even an iota of Greene’s ability, I’d die happy.
My rating for The Heart of the Matter is a 9 out of 10.
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