As well as her poetry, Helen Dunmore has so far written thirteen ‘grown up’ books and a whole bookshelf of children’s works, and in fact I first became aware of her when Offspring Number 2 fell in love with the Ingo chronicles quite some years back. To date, have enjoyed seven of her novels, having just completed the Baileys’ (formerly Orange) Book of the Year winner for 1996 – “A Spell of Winter”.
It’s not my favourite of the bunch, and I still hold “The Siege” and “The Betrayal” much more highly in the rankings, but it is a very atmospheric and troubling read.
Not to spoil the core underlying theme, it touches on many dark family issues, and transports the reader into the claustrophobic and very isolated world in which the chief protagonists, brother and sister Rob and Catherine, live just before and after the Great War. Told by Catherine, you cannot help but feel one step removed from her all the way through, and I think this is beautifully done: you are never inside her skin and while she talks you nevertheless remain poised, looking guardedly over her shoulder.
I best enjoyed the positioning of the three woman who circle most closely round Catherine’s orbit – the elusive mother who you visualise quite clearly despite her absence, the maternal Cathy who may turn out not to be just the mother figure she is missing, and the needy and rather creepy Miss Gallagher who is just the kind of wishful parent neither of these children want.
But above all, I enjoyed the way Helen Dunmore writes – it’s fine stuff indeed :
“I love the colourless look of winter gardens from a distance. Then when you are walking in them there are hundreds of tiny changes of grey and green, bright orange lichen on the walls, and golden shreds of half-eaten crocus under the oak trees.”
“I crunch the last triangle and lick butter off my fingers… I am sleek with virtue and butter.”
“My body trembled, as if it knew things I didn’t know.”
“I glanced up over my shoulder and caught her looking at me. She was drinking me in…”.
“Her heart was leaking out of her.”
Read March 2015.
Rating : 8/10
Baileys’ (Orange) Prize for Women’s Fiction 1996