I had no memory any more, only a puzzle of images

A Spell of Winter

A Spell of Winter
by Helen Dunmore

Dunmore is one of those authors I’ve been hearing good things about for years but hadn’t got round to reading, despite her being local and exactly suited to my taste. Which perhaps gives away what I feel about this book!

The story is narrated by Cathy and in a slightly dreamlike nonlinear fashion she tells us how she went from happy child playing endlessly with her brother Rob, to depressed 20-something seemingly living alone in a big old house that’s falling apart. The setting is the early 20th century (in fact, the First World War acts as a big dividing line in the narrative) and a country house estate owned by Cathy’s grandfather. The facts of her life come together slowly, so although we learn early on that her grandfather, parents and brother are no longer around, the when and why take some time to be revealed. And because she, especially at first, jumps around in time, sometimes I missed whopping great clues to something that happened later and it was only with hindsight I realised I should have seen it coming.

“I had no memory any more, only a puzzle of images, each one so bright I had to believe it as it burnt up in my mind.”

The slow reveal is a recurring trope in this novel. But it never gets annoying, even when I realised after finishing the book how many mysteries are actually never resolved. The basic facts, of a small family living largely in isolation from the world and everything falling apart, are recognisable as a classic storyline, and rightly so. But Dunmore does bring something new to it, and I don’t just mean the inappropriate closeness of Cathy and Rob (after all, that’s been done before too).

“My winter excitement quickened each year with the approach of darkness. I wanted the temperature to drop lower and lower until not even a trace of mercury showed against the figures. I wanted us to wake to a kingdom of ice where our breath would turn to icicles as it left our lips and we would walk through tunnels of snow to the outhouses and find birds fallen dead from the air. I willed the snow to lie for ever, and buried my head under the pillow so as not to hear the chuckle and drip of thaw.”

For a start, the writing is beautiful. Dunmore somehow combines really vivid descriptions and gripping story with an ethereal quality, with the first chapter and epilogue feeling particularly trance-like. This, along with the first-person narrative, plants the question of how much of what we are told is real, or how much is solely in Cathy’s imagination. It certainly seems at times that she is not told things – she is after all the younger child of a (relatively) well-off family with guilty secrets at a time when women were far from equal. But this means she snatches at servant gossip or inferences to build her own ideas, not all of which are wholly proved or disproved. For instance, her grandfather is “the man from another place” and she at one point refers to herself as “half English”, but this is never fully explained.

“I ought to have made sure I knew more. He’d had a past, a geography of silence. None of us had ever mapped it.”

I feel I would be doing a disservice to the book if I didn’t say something about the big unavoidable subject at its centre but for readers like me who don’t read blurbs it will count as a spoiler so…don’t read on unless you’ve read the book or don’t mind!

*** SPOILERS BEGIN ***

So – incest. This is a tough subject for a lot of people and I was both disturbed and impressed by Dunmore that she doesn’t just imply it and leave it oblique. She has Cathy describe fully and sensually her teenage sexual awakening and it is completely sympathetic and in many ways inevitable. Cathy and Rob are entirely each other’s world, rarely seeing others their own age. But they are also both completely aware of what they are doing and both the social implications and the moral position of it.

This very much ties in to another major subject in the book – mental health. There are two occasions when characters have breakdowns in their mental health following something traumatic happening, and the story poses the question of whether this is a natural reaction to what has happened, or something that was always lingering inside them, perhaps something hereditary. Cathy wonders if her unhealthy relationship with her brother proves right all those whispers about how she is so like her mother, who ran away.

I did start to worry that Cathy’s situation had got too dark and that there was no good way out for her, but bizarrely the First World War came at just the right time for her. She has complained all along that she is too sturdily built to be a beauty but with all the men gone and a farm to run she discovers how capable she is. I loved this transformation. Though it doesn’t make her happy, it made me like her again as a person, which isn’t necessary for me to like a book but usually makes it a more pleasant read.

*** SPOILERS END ***

I really enjoyed this book. The writing style and the story, with its period setting and sensationalist angle, reminded me a lot of Daphne du Maurier, which is high praise indeed! I will definitely have to read more by Dunmore. Anyone have any recommendations?

Published in 1995 by Viking.
Winner of the 1996 Orange Prize.

Source: Topping Bookshop, Bath.

Nightmares sneak out into the daylight

The Sandman

The Sandman Vol. 1 Preludes & Nocturnes
by Neil Gaiman (writer), Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III (artists)

I have been told so many times that I should read The Sandman that I just assumed it would be wonderful. It’s Neil Gaiman, it’s a highly acclaimed comic-book series, it’s about dreams and nightmares – it sounded perfect. And it is pretty good, but I think my expectations were too high.

This is the first of 12 volumes, republishing the full original run of The Sandman. The artwork is beautiful in a dark, gothic style. The concept is fascinating and open-ended. Quite simply, the Sandman is the lord of the world of dreams, both good and bad. He can move in and out of the real world, magical realms and dreams themselves.

This volume has a clear complete storyline – in 1916 a magic circle tries to summon Death and instead gets the Sandman, whom they imprison for many decades. This has a terrible effect on the world – with no-one controlling the dream world, some people go mad, others just stay asleep for years. The Sandman must escape and regain control, but it won’t be an easy task.

“Daniel Bustamonte returns to his best dream. But this time the clouds are flimsy, frail, less real. And then the clouds aren’t there at all. Too scared to sleep, he sobs to keep himself awake until dawn.”

“Stefan’s case is new to the doctors. They thought they’d seen every form of shellshock. How long can a boy go without sleeping? When do the nightmares sneak out into the daylight? The morphine is proving useless. It’s sad.”

“Unity Kinkaid finds it harder and harder to stay awake. She now sleeps for almost 20 hours a day. She used to dream; to shift in her sleep, muttering and sighing, locked in half-remembered fantasies. Now she lies unmoving, breath shallow and silent, lost to the world. Unity sleeps.”

I liked the concept, I liked the story and the artwork, I like that it’s dark (even a bit grisly in places) but…I’m not sure exactly what was wrong but it didn’t grab me. The stuff about the world going mad without the Sandman was brilliant but over a little too quickly, I felt a lot more could have been made of it. And there was surprisingly little of the dream world depicted, but I’m sure that’s still to come. Only, I’m not all that bothered about reading the remaining volumes.

Maybe I was in the wrong mood. Maybe I should treat it as much as a work of art as a work of fiction. I’m not sure. I had half a plan to try The Books of Magic next. Perhaps I should lower my expectations first?

First published as The Sandman issues 1–8, 1988–1989, by DC Comics.
This edition published 2010 by Vertigo, DC Comics.

Source: I bought this from my local comic-book shop.

In the spirit of winter

Dark Matter: a Ghost Story
by Michelle Paver

This book has all the perfect elements to interest me and yet somehow I hadn’t heard of it until I stumbled across it in a shop. An excellent find!

The bulk of the novel takes the form of a journal, kept by Jack Miller during an expedition to the Arctic in 1937. A down-at-heel London clerk who hates his job and resents that money troubles meant he had to give up his place at university and his dream of becoming a physicist, the opportunity to work as communications man for a meteorological study in Svalbard should be the ideal way out of his slump. He is almost put off by the other four members of the party being terribly upper class, but figures he can go off to do this for a year and then when he gets back there will be a war to fight in.

A prologue tells us that the expedition did not go well, that terrible things happened and at least one man died, so the atmosphere is ominous from the start. The tension is ramped up each time something goes wrong, but even without mishaps the fast-approaching Arctic winter is frightening enough. Paver does an excellent job of combining descriptions of the cold beauty of the 24-hour sunlight with explanations of how that will turn to 24-hour darkness without it ever feeling as though you are being lectured to.

Despite all the ramped-up fear, the early sections of this book really made me want to go to the Arctic. The setting came from Paver’s own journeys to various places in the North Pole and her first-hand knowledge really shows. She even, after conceiving the idea for this book, travelled to Svalbard during winter to experience camping and hiking in the endless darkness. As a qualified biochemist, lover of the Arctic and classic ghost stories, and published author of her own ghost stories, no-one could have been more qualified to write this story.

And it is brilliant and evocative and terrible but I was never quite convinced by the supernatural element. I would have been happy to see the terrors as a product of psychological disturbance, not an unusual outcome of overwintering in the Arctic, but the novel seems to try hard to persuade us that the ghost is real, that it is much more sinister and inexplicable than mere madness. I think more ambiguity on this point would have worked better for me.

But aside from that I loved it. Paver has done a wonderful job of developing the relationships between the men, and I especially enjoyed the growing closeness between Jack and one of the husky dogs – beautifully done. She has also very effectively created the fear and loneliness and self-doubt. Immediately after finishing this I started reading Shackleton’s account from the Antarctic and it really highlighted how Paver had got the tone spot-on.

First published in 2010 by Orion. Paperback edition published 2011.

See also: reviews on Savidge Reads and Chasing Bawa

The edge of sanity

Time Out of Joint
by Philip K Dick

Although this is part of the SF Masterworks series, the SF content of this novel is fairly slim and if anything the big reveal is a little disappointingly convoluted. For the most part the novel is about sanity and our acceptance of the reality around us. And in that respect it is brilliant.

A recent Guardian books blog suggested that SF, and Philip K Dick in particular, has great ideas but terrible writing. In my experience that’s complete rubbish. Sure, there’s some badly written SF but that’s true for any genre – and non-genre – writing. This is my first Dick novel and I thought it extremely well written. It’s not flowery or overly descriptive, which if anything is a style I prefer. The characters are complex and sympathetic, the majority of the story emanating from their thoughts, though the narration is third-person.

Middle-aged Ragle Gumm lives in suburbia with his sister, her husband and their child. Gumm stays home all day, making his living from a newspaper contest called “Where will the little green man be next?”, at which he is the national champion. He seduces the neighbour’s young, pretty wife, as much from boredom or a feeling that he ought to have a lovelife as any real attraction. He’s aware that his life is a little unusual, while at the same time being docile and unchanging.

But there are times when Gumm is convinced that it’s all very wrong, that the world around him isn’t real, that there’s a conspiracy at work. Perhaps he’s just insane. Or it could be a little of both.

What makes the story especially intriguing is that Gumm’s brother-in-law and nephew also notice oddities, irregularities that convince them that something strange is afoot, and the three of them work together to gather evidence and figure it out. But it is Gumm who is convinced that the world revolves around him, or that it appears to.

The depiction of uncertain sanity is so well crafted that almost anything becomes believable, because it could always be Gumm’s paranoia talking. As a picture of paranoia the novel is near-perfect. However, as I said, the attempt to explain everything away in the end with an SF storyline is a let-down. Unless, of course, you consider that section to be when Gumm passes the tipping point into pure madness. Which, now I think of it, works pretty well.

An afterword by Lou Stathis helpfully explains where this novel sits in Dick’s vast legacy of fiction. I will definitely be following his advice and adding The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldridge, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep?, A Scanner Darkly and The Transmigration of Timothy Archer to my to-read shelf.

First published 1959 by Lippincott.
ISBN 978-0-5750-7458-3