BOOK REVIEW :A family romance

A SPELL OF WINTER Helen Dunmore Viking £15

Writers portraying past times often find it hard to take off their contemporary spectacles. Helen Dunmore doesn't have a problem with this, apart from one major lapse that weakens the ending. For the most part A Spell of Winter which moves from the Edwardian era through the First World War, is deeply and fittingly unfashionable. The characters frequently kill small furry creatures, and a sense of hope and content can result from the shooting of a duck on a perfect morning, its body making a "light sweet sound" as it is pulled from the ooze. That late 20th-century icon, Woman Finding Herself, is defined by the wreckage she left behind, her abandoned children.

Helen Dunmore writes fluidly. At its worst, her prose gives us the sunburn of someone's look resting on the heroine's cheek or "the hungry acreage" of another face actually "sucking" at her. At its best, it is lyrical, simple and apt, as when she movingly evokes the empty quietness of a village depopulated of its men during the war. It builds an elegant incest tale, initially reminiscent of a romantic mini-series in the Upstairs Downstairs mould. Cathy and Rob are brought up by their curmudgeonly grandfather and assorted servants in a world where the veneer of wealth covers a seediness of leaky roofs and broken fences. Sister and brother are caught in close bonds of infancy which the years are unable to break. "It was all play," she says. Their secret sex seems a natural progression of the games they have always enjoyed. Their relationship, childhood and adult, convinces with its ease and affection and the sense of mutual protection in a world too painful to be entered. Rob, a Peter Pan of sorts, kills "the boy in the wallpaper," a figure of childhood fear for Cathy. The question then becomes what is to be done about another terror, the hated Miss Gallagher, their repressed lesbian governess, who is a full-sprung anal- retentive villain verging on the vampiric. She is not so much a character as a malign force.

The slide towards tragedy is poignant but there is a gritty edge. Hints of violence flash up in the girl: cannibal fantasies, and a sudden desire to push the governess into the fire. Thoughts of her grandfather bring on visions of the broken fingers of corpses. Clearly we are headed for something dark.

Helen Dunmore has a natural way with the dark. There is real power in her descriptions of loss and grief. At the emotional centre of the book is an abortion as tenderly and sensitively described as a birth. Later, the new mother searches compulsively for the unknown burial place of the "little female thing" she saw in a bucket at the end of "that long bloody night". This is compelling stuff. The resulting plunge into psychosis is totally believable.

Cathy's plight is partly her own fault. A serious, rather gloomy girl, lacking curiosity, fearful and with no confidence in the possibility of her own happiness, she paints herself into a corner, into a time as frozen as the landscape around the old house in winter. Running counter to all this throughout are the intrusions of her kindly neighbour Mr Bullivant, who owns a house in Italy, has a suntan and brings gifts of lemons. I did not really believe in his easy option of flight, and I did not believe in the book's end, when this absent mother we have never seen - this blighter of young lives, this distant, lost, mourned creature - turns out to be just the same old late 20th- century icon after all, but redeemed.

Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan as Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

film Sex scene trailer sees a shirtless Jamie Dornan turn up the heat

Arts and Entertainment
A sketch of Van Gogh has been discovered in the archives of Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Eleanor Catton has hit back after being accused of 'treachery' for criticising the government.
books
Arts and Entertainment
Fake Banksy stencil given to artist Alex Jakob-Whitworth

art

Arts and Entertainment
'The Archers' has an audience of about five million
radioA growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is heading to Norwich for Radio 1's Big Weekend

music
Arts and Entertainment
Beer as folk: Vincent Franklin and Cyril Nri (centre) in ‘Cucumber’
tvReview: This slice of gay life in Manchester has universal appeal
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
‘A Day at the Races’ still stands up well today
film
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tvAnd its producers have already announced a second season...
Arts and Entertainment
Kraftwerk performing at the Neue Nationalgalerie (New National Gallery) museum in Berlin earlier this month
musicWhy a bunch of academics consider German electropoppers Kraftwerk worthy of their own symposium
Arts and Entertainment
Icelandic singer Bjork has been forced to release her album early after an online leak

music
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth as Harry Hart in Kingsman: The Secret Service

film
Arts and Entertainment
Brian Blessed as King Lear in the Guildford Shakespeare Company's performance of the play

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

    Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
    Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

    The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

    Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
    Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

    Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

    A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
    How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

    How books can defeat Isis

    Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

    She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
    The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

    The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

    The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

    Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
    Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

    Young carers to make dance debut

    What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
    Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

    Design Council's 70th anniversary

    Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
    Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

    Dame Harriet Walter interview

    The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

    Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

    Bill Granger's winter salads

    Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
    England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

    George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

    No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
    Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links