Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore
Penguin: paperback published 2007: 315 pages
Spring 1917, and war haunts the Cornish coastal village of Zennor: ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy stories.
Into this turmoil come D.H. Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, hoping to escape the war-fever that grips London. They befriend Clare Coyne, a young artist struggling to console her beloved cousin, John William, who is on leave from the trenches and suffering from shell-shock.
Yet the dark tide of gossip and innuendo means that Zennor is neither a place of recovery nor of escape…
There is something so comforting about returning to a well-loved author. It’s warm and welcoming and oh-so familiar.
That’s how I feel about Helen Dunmore. Bristol-based Dunmore has a bit of a love affair with the Cornish coast (see most of her other novels, children’s stories and poems), and through her writing it is easy to see why.
Dunmore seems to me a poet first and foremost. Her writing is lyrical in its beauty, and her preference of writing in the present tense makes it all the more insistent in its telling of the story. You get swept along by the writing, by the story and the characters – the Cornish coast being one of the biggest characters of all: “Now, with her head on the rock, she hears the underground lion’s cough and then the pause and shock of the wave beneath her.”
In Zennor in Darkness, it is not so much D.H. Lawrence who takes centre stage, but Clare. Clare, who ought to be so timid and proper, but whose red hair and unrepentant verve for adventure gives her away. Clare Coyne is a likeable heroine – she behaves in all the ways you would expect, and then takes you by surprise just as you’re beginning to feel like you understand her. She trickles in and out of other peoples’ lives with great ease, but leaving behind her a wake of disruption (and not bad disruption, just something new). D.H. Lawrence himself is blurred around the edges – described as charismatic yet lacking some of that charisma off the pages. His wife is far more vibrant than he – and the image of her dancing around the garden in red stockings won’t leave you for a while.
And what about John William? Can I call him sinister? He’s magnetic, yet terrifying at the same time. Perhaps as one suffering shell shock in a small village in 1917 would be, and should be. There’s a sense that he takes advantage of Clare, yet also glimpses of perhaps a different John William who cares very much. You genuinely feel sad as you join him in his plight. But you also want to step away from him, and urge Clare to do the same.
Dunmore’s strengths are her characters – and I class her settings as characters too. They leap from the page, and you love them or you hate them, but either way they linger in your memory as if you really did meet them. You end the book feeling as if you knew Clare and Lawrence and his wife, as if you sat next to Clare’s father on the coastal train journey in the rain; you still have the smell of the beach and the cliffs in your nose, and your skin is still hot and tingling from sunburn.
That is Dunmore’s magic. The moments after you close the book, and you have to sit there until you return to reality, because for those few hundred pages, you were wandering Zennor in 1917 in a hot May, shading your eyes as you look for U-boats, and listening to the local gossip – wasp-stings of lies and truth.
Now, I do have to award it five stars – because this has topped my list of favourite Helen Dunmore books to read. It’s a close way behind The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafón) and The Book Thief (Markus Zusak) but steps ahead of Talking to the Dead – which was beautiful and haunting and made me cry, but was not quite as delightful as Zennor in Darkness. I want you to read this book, and love it, and tell me how much you love it so we can enthuse about it together.
Next book: I deliberately went out and found this after reading an article on The Bookseller about it being adapted for TV. So, having never read any Philip K. Dick before, I’m launching myself into The Man in the High Castle.