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.