BOOK REVIEW :A family romance
A SPELL OF WINTER Helen Dunmore Viking £15
Saturday 18 March 1995
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.
game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers
North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama
Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Lucy Hawking: Stephen Hawking's daughter writes impassioned open letter to Katie Hopkins about rights of disabled people
- 2 #NotGuilty: Second Oxford student writes of brutal rape by two men who then threw her in a bin as part of campaign against victim blaming
- 3 Indonesia executions: Death row British grandmother Lindsay Sandiford will refuse to wear a blindfold when she faces firing squad
- 4 Oxygen-starved 'dead zones' with no marine life up to 100-miles long discovered in the Atlantic Ocean
- 5 How the language you speak changes your view of the world
The C-Word - review: Sheridan Smith shines in a warm, honest adaptation of Lisa Lynch's book about living with cancer
X-Men Apocalypse: First look at Jubilee and Jean Grey played by Game of Thrones star Sophie Turner
American Horror Story: Hotel Angela Bassett set to make 'lots of trouble' with Lady Gaga in season 5
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 4 - review: Sansa is in danger of becoming another footnote in Westeros' bloody history
Adam Sandler's The Ridiculous Six: Make-up 'used to darken skin of actors to make them look Native American'
Over 50,000 families shipped out of London boroughs in the past three years due to welfare cuts and soaring rents
EU asylum policy is 'a direct threat to our civilisation', says Nigel Farage
The Rothschild Libel: Why has it taken 200 years for an anti-Semitic slur that emerged from the Battle of Waterloo to be dismissed?
General Election 2015: SNP and its activists 'openly racist' towards the English, Farage says
General Election 2015: UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power, Labour warns
Schools forced to act as 'miniature welfare states' with teachers buying underwear and even haircuts for poor pupils