A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore
Penguin Fiction: paperback published 2007: 313 pages
Catherine and her brother, Rob, don’t know why they have been abandoned by their parents. Incarcerated in the enormous country house of their grandfather – ‘the man from nowhere’ – they create a refuge against their family’s dark secrets, and against the outside world as it moves towards the First World War. As time passes, their sibling love deepens and crosses into forbidden territory. But they are not as alone in the house as they believe…
Did I mention that Helen Dunmore is my favourite author? No? Well, she’s my favourite author. She began her writing career as a poet, and then went on to short stories and novels (both adult and children’s). And it shows in her writing – each novel I have read is almost lyrical, and when describing Dunmore, I prefer the term “wordsmith” rather than “novelist”… it seems to fit her poetic descriptions and way of writing.
And A Spell of Winter is no different. I found the blurb didn’t really match the story – the First World War, though featuring, isn’t as heavily implicated as much as the blurb suggests, and the grandfather is rarely referred to as “the man from nowhere” at all. But the story is beautiful nonetheless. Cathy gives a dreamy narrative, tinged with grief and also a sense of dissociation, which is a peculiar mix at first, but you soon become familiar with her voice and learn to roll with it. Dunmore’s novels are very character-heavy as opposed to plot-driven, so if you like lots of action, her writing is definitely not for you. I will admit, however, that this novel is not my favourite of hers (Talking to the Dead is, though her children’s Ingo series is pretty close). Cathy is not overly likeable, and neither are any of the other characters, so I found it hard to relate to anyone. The story is beautiful in that you hope for the best, but like real life, it doesn’t always happen that way. It’s hard to review this book properly, because it’s so dreamlike, it’s hard to describe. The best bit – by far – was Dunmore’s descriptions of the seasons. When she talks about the winter, you feel cold to your bones, and when she describes the roses in the summer you can smell them and feel the heat on your skin.
Next book: I’ve chosen The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – a Young Adult novel – because there’s a film of it coming up, and they’ve FINALLY done an “adult-suitable” cover. Also, I figure it could be a quick read.