Scobie is a senior police officer in an unnamed British State in West Africa during the Second World War. He has been there for some time, doing his job diligently and hoping to one day be elevated to the role of Commissioner. When he learns he has been overlooked for this in favour of someone new and younger, it is almost the last straw for his unhappy wife Louise.
Louise feels that they cannot bear to stay knowing that Scobie has been overlooked and she makes no secret that she’s had enough of this life. Scobie promises her the money to get her onto a passage to South Africa but it doesn’t take long before he realises that his meagre salary and the uncertainty of war means that he will not be able to obtain the money in conventional ways. He has already promised Louise that he will do this though so he is desperate to think of something.
Scobie has always been immune to corruption and bribery in an area that is rife with it. But his situation has changed things and when he also finds himself with the added complication of having fallen in love, he becomes a target for manipulation and coercion. A religious man, Scobie has always been true to his faith but the circumstances he now finds himself in have him warring inside: his happiness versus his faith. And he isn’t sure that he can see a satisfactory way out, not when they are coming for him.
The Heart Of The Matter is my third Graham Greene book overall and the second I have read this year for Carrie over at Books & Movies Graham Greene Challenge. Carrie had always planned to host a read-a-long for the challenge and when I heard that it was going to be this one, which I had not read yet, I signed up immediately.
It’s not an easy book to review I’m finding, in fact I’ve been putting this review off for about two weeks now. I’m beginning to realise that Graham Greene novels are a bit of an oddity in that I’m never entirely sure that I like them but I usually enjoy the story because it raises interesting questions in my mind. The characters in this one are all relatively unlikable, Scobie is weak and downtrodden and also stubborn, Louise is whiny, uppity and manipulative. Wilson, who is new to the area and no one is quite sure what he is there for, falls in love almost immediately with Louise which didn’t endear him to me because I can’t imagine anyone finding Louise in any way remotely appealing! As the story meandered on it became clear that this was going to be another book of depressed people having depressing things happen to them, a la the rest of the Greene books I’ve read, and also one that explored some sort of moral dilemma.
The moral dilemma in question is Scobie’s – he’s maintained a pristine record in this area, free of the stench of corruption and bribery. He undertakes an ‘innocent’ arrangement with a local shop-owner in order to put his wife on a passage to South America and while Louise is gone, Scobie falls in love with a young woman named Helen, victim of a shipwreck. He has immediately put himself in a position where he can be blackmailed (which of course happens) but Scobie’s internal dilemma is more a struggle with his faith versus his happiness. He’s Catholic, so adultery is abhorrent and yet he cannot stay away from Helen, even though what he’s doing is as wrong as can be. He finds reason after reason to avoid church, to avoid confession. He has also finally gained what he wanted – the role of Commissioner but now it is tainted as he has the blackmail hanging over him and it all just proves to be too much.
This is a bleak book – there’s no sunshine here. Even Scobie’s happiness with Helen is obviously tinged with misery given you just know that Louise isn’t going to stay sunning herself on a beach in South Africa and will be back to spread her particular brand of misery before you can blink. Most of Scobie’s moral dilemma was kind of lost on me because I’m not religious and I do not see how to fail at faith is to fail at life itself but it was obviously very important to him and his agony came through the pages.
The Heart Of The Matter is an interesting novel, set in a time and place that I found really enjoyable to read about (but would not at all have liked to have experienced!). But it’s the sort of novel that I probably won’t read again.
Also everyone drinks an awful lot here. Like the fishes. Pink gins for all!
Book #125 of 2012
The Heart Of The Matter was the 2nd book read for the Graham Greene Challenge. One more to go!