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.