The novel is set in the late 1950s and begins in January with Eva driving most of the Dancey family through the English countryside, coming to a stop at a neglected castle. 'This is where we were to have spent our honeymoon' she states quietly. The children in the group range in age from seven to thirteen and have absolutely no idea what she's on about. Their mother is busy watching from the car, studying Eva is more like it.
At twenty-four, the heiress is supervised by an unlikable fellow named Constantine, a former friend and most likely lover, of her father, Willy, who committed suicide years ago. Eva's mother, Cissie, died in a plane crash when Eva was only two months old while on a dalliance with her lover. While Constantine quite likes the financial side of being tied to Eva he is more than happy to turn around and pay Mr and Mrs Arble to house and care for her daily needs. They are also only to happy for the extra money but I felt so sad that the money came before Eva's well-being, especially given Constantine's knowledge of the family history...
'We must face this: Eva's capacity for making trouble, attracting trouble, stewing trouble around her, is quite endless. She, er, begets trouble - a dreadful gift. And the more so for being inborn. You may not realise for how long and how painfully closely I've known that family. The Trouts have, one might say, a genius for unreality: even Willy was prone to morose distortions. Hysteria was, of course, the domain of Cissie. Your, er, generous defence of Cissie won't, I hope, entirely blind you to how much of what was least desirable in Cissie is in her daughter. Eva is tacitly hysterical.'
Iseult Arble taught in a boarding school and developed a strong attachment to Eva. Having no children themselves, the Arbles enjoy having her around but eventually they realize she seems to be coming between them. Deeply upset by betrayal, Eva packs up her meagre belongings and sets out for a house she has rented in Broadstairs called Cathay.. Her first night in the house, which needs loads of work, quickly makes clear how unprepared she is for independent living and responsibility which in turn worries the agent.
'Not the least of this unfortunate agent's fears are, that you may blow Cathay up by tampering with, er, intricate gas appliances, or burn the place down - he scented pyromania in your excitability when he struck matches.'
Henry Dancey is put in charge of selling her Jaguar to raise funds until Eva's trust fund matures in a few months when she turns twenty-five. Mr Arble arrives one night after discovering an address on a postcard sent to Henry. It is during an encounter with Mrs Arble a few months later when Eva is asked to join the couple for Christmas that Eva announces she will be having a child by then. Nine months after Mr Arble's visit. So begins the second part of the book, picking up eight years later and all involved are just as mystified by what Eva has engineered and why.
From here on in the book takes on a sort of noir feeling with frenzied telegrams, missed calls, quick escapes and extreme panic. The comparison of a thrush that flies into a church and its subsequent struggle to find freedom while a character sits in a pew coming to terms with his own struggle is absolutely breathtaking. Needless to say I was transfixed for the last few chapters and it would have taken the house burning down around me to make me put the book down. The ending is explosive.
Once I finish a book I like to search around for other readers' thoughts and can only shake my head at those who didn't find Eva Trout to be one of Bowen's masterpieces. Come to think of it, I don't understand why this title isn't as widely known as The Heat of the Day or The Death of the Heart. Eva Trout made the Man Booker shortlist in 1970 but lost to Bernice Ruben's The Elected Member, which I can only surmise must be bloody fantastic to trump Elizabeth Bowen.