Posts Tagged ‘Helen Dunmore’

Some of you may remember that a few months ago I somewhat rashly decided on a long lasting reading project, to read all the winners and shortlisted books of the women’s prize. I knew it would be a challenge but since then I have read precisely nothing new for it until I picked A Spell of Winter off my #20booksofsummer pile. It was, appropriately enough the book that won the first ever prize in 1996.

It is an absolutely stunning piece of writing – and has served to remind me how I haven’t read nearly enough Helen Dunmore.

“I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone is gone.”

The novel opens in the early twentieth century, some years before the First World War. Narrated by Catherine, the youngest of two siblings. Young siblings Rob and Catherine don’t understand why they have been abandoned by their parents while they are living in their grandfather’s house. Their grandfather; the man from nowhere – is a remote, closed off figure – who won’t have the children’s mother so much as mentioned. All they know is that she left.

“You live in the past,’ Kate said. ‘You live in your grandfather’s time.’ But she was wrong. The past was not something we could live in, because it had nothing to do with life. It was something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples.”

Catherine grows up knowing her grandfather dislikes her because she is so like her mother. The children visit their father in a sanatorium of some kind, just once, a rather distressing visit – which sees Rob having to protect his sister from their father’s rather strange behaviour.

In the early part of the book – there are glimpses of an older Catherine – living alone in winter, in the same house, emptied of everyone – haunted by the past. Dumore’s writing in these sections is exquisite – creating a wonderful sense of aloneness and extreme cold.

“It is winter, my season. Rob’s was summer. He was born in June, and I was born in the middle of the night, on the 21st of December. My winter excitement quickened each year with the approach of darkness. I wanted the thermometer to drop lower and lower until not even a trace of mercury showed against the figures. I wanted us to wake to a kingdom of ice where our breath would turn to icicles as it left our lips, and we would walk through tunnels of snow to the outhouses and find birds fallen dead from the air. I willed the snow to lie for ever, and I turned over and buried my head under the pillow so as not to hear the chuckle and drip of thaw.”

The one constant presence in the lives of Catherine and Rob is Kate – the household servant – once there had been Eileen too, but she left after a few years, Kate stayed. Kate is only a few years older than Rob really, despite her status in the house – but to Catherine and Rob she is the care giver – it is Kate who makes their grandfather’s house a home.

Another regular is Miss Gallagher, who comes to the house to teach Catherine. Miss Gallagher who can ‘make a sunny day look like a funeral’ – who is watchful and secretive, she fawns over Catherine who she loves and ignores Rob who she hates. The children play a point scoring game in which Catherine must try and make Miss Gallagher speak to Rob – something she generally avoids. The siblings are close – they rely on one another, grow up knowing each other better than anyone else does.

Mr Bullivant; a wealthy man comes to the area – a well-travelled man with a home in Italy. He befriends Rob and Catherine, despite being quite a lot older. He is building a fountain in the grounds of his home and owns a billiard table. He gives them food the like of which they have never tasted and talks to them about his lemon house in his villa in Italy. He loans Rob his expensive new horse and talks to Catherine tentatively of her mother – who he knew socially in France. Despite Mr Bullivant opening up the world a little to the siblings, they remain as close as they ever were in childhood.

In time, Catherine and Rob’s sibling love enters new and forbidden territory – the two of them carve out a world that is just theirs. However, someone is watching. The consequences of their forbidden passions will be far reaching and dangerous. As the world creeps closer to war, change comes to the household and it seems as if nothing will ever be the same again.

In the years after the war, Catherine remains held in the grip of this spell of winter, as if frozen herself – rooted to a place and what happened there. Will Catherine escape the dark secrets of her family and the tragedy of her own young life? In A Spell of Winter Helen Dunmore has created a beautifully nuanced, lyrical novel that is also enormously compelling. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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With grateful thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

Helen Dunmore is one of today’s writers that I know I like – and yet oddly enough I haven’t read all her books – yet. Exposure her latest novel is actually due out the week after next and was made available to many readers via Netgalley. I decided to get stuck in to Exposure fairly immediately – set in the cold war of the 1960’s, its thriller style isn’t my usual bag – but it’s unputdownably compelling. This new novel of love, family secrets and betrayal is likely to be a big hit with Dunmore’s legion of fans.

“It turns out that I knew everything. All the facts were in my head and always had been. I ignored them, because it was easier. I didn’t want to make connections. I’ve begun to understand that I’ve been half-asleep all my life, and now I’m waking up.”

Simon Callington is a fairly unambitious middle ranking admiralty officer. It was Giles Holloway who got Simon the job, Giles a secretive, manipulative hard drinker, who Simon knew at Cambridge. Now, Simon is content enough to remain as he is, his happiness lying in his nice home in Muswell Hill, his wife Lily and their three children.

One night as Simon is comfortably seated by his fire, he gets a panic call from Giles. Giles wants Simon to help clear up a serious mess he has made. There’s a file where it shouldn’t be – secret voices on the end of the phone, a shadowy man who lets himself into Giles’s flat. With Giles out of action, Simon is persuaded to help – against his better judgement. He soon comes to regret his decision, a quick glance at the file in question – and he knows it means trouble.

Simon has his own secrets that risk exposure, a life he lived while at Cambridge his wife knows nothing about. Lily finds the file hidden behind the children’s boots in the cloakroom, and fearing for its discovery – buries it in the garden. Simon is arrested, charged with selling secrets to the Russians, the police search the house before turning on Lily. Wanting to know – does she speak German. The police know all about Lily’s past. Born in Germany she came to England before the war in 1937 with her mother Elsa, and from the moment she set foot on English soil Lili became Lily and spoke only English.

“The house is a ship, riding the waves high above London. This is what Lily always told herself at night, when she’s afraid and the noise of the city becomes forlorn, even terrifying, as if anything might happen.

Lily no longer speaks a word of German, but she still hears the noise of thousands and thousands of throats, open, baying. It’s only the traffic, or the wind.”

Lily works part-time as a French teacher – but the headmistress is looking at her oddly now – and any day Lily knows her job will be gone. With Simon on remand – she can no longer afford to live in their home, she feels the eyes of everyone are on her, wondering, judging. Newspapermen lay siege to the house, calling their questions through the letterbox. The children are frightened. Lily and the children leave London for Kent – here close to the sea they rent a tiny cottage – and Lily takes a house keeping job to an elderly widower, while the children walk home from school and collect sea coal from the beach.

“Suddenly, she is sure beyond doubt that there is someone outside the cottage, watching it, just as there was in London. The walls seem to dissolve and leave her naked. If she looked out she would see them, standing on the lane, turned towards her window. They know she’s here.
There aren’t any neighbours. If anything happened, no one would know until morning. Maybe not even then. It’s too dark for her to look at her watch, and she daren’t switch on the light.”

Lily shows herself to be tough, resourceful; she’ll do whatever it takes to protect her children from the men who want to destroy her family.

The Helen Dunmore novels I remember best are those with a strong sense of place, Talking to the Dead, Zennor in Darkness stand out particularly. Exposure is a brilliantly plotted novel, it’s enormously compelling and I gulped it down. Dunmore builds the tension slowly, the atmosphere of fear and creeping shadows is chillingly well done. I especially loved the section set in Kent – that sense of place I loved so much in those previous novels is strong here too.

Helen Dunmore is an excellent writer, and I really must read those books I have yet to get to – I still have The Lie tbr for a start.


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Helen Dunmore has become one of those writers I keep accidently forgetting about – and then each time I read one of her novels I find myself wondering why it is I haven’t read more of them, at the same time pleased that I still have a fair number to go.

The Greatcoat is a kind of ghost story – Helen Dunmore was apparently asked by Hammer to write a ghost story – and this is it. Now I am firmly in the ‘ghosts don’t exist – it’s all rubbish’ camp. Still, a well written ghost story is a marvellous thing, and this is certainly a very well written ghost story. Admittedly I read it with a part of my mind working on finding a rational explanation – the over stimulated imagination and loneliness of a newly married young woman, haunted by her wartime adolescence the most likely. Maybe searching for a rational explanation is the wrong way to read these kinds of novels, and maybe that’s why I don’t read that many.

The novel opens with a prologue in which we meet a group of wartime air force men setting off on operations. Alec is their skipper, the men all look to his lead, they’re young men, hoping to hell their luck holds – but they all know it’s bad luck to think that way.

In the Yorkshire winter of 1952 Isabel Carey is a young doctor’s wife, struggling to adjust to the realities of her new life. She and her new husband, Philip are hoping to get a home of their own before too long, but in the meantime they are renting part of a house that has been divided into two flats. Their landlady, the peculiar Mrs Atkinson lives upstairs, she paces the floor at all hours, and watches Isabel as she comes and goes. Isabel is always cold, her husband; working long hours in a practice that covers many miles, is never awake for long enough to feel the cold, while Isabel lies awake, shivering, listening to the pacing footsteps of Mrs Atkinson. One night Isabel rummaging in an old wardrobe to find something to spread on the bed for extra warmth finds an old greatcoat, large and warm she spreads it over her side of the bed and snuggles down to sleep.

“There was a dry reek of mothballs, and old, woollen cloth. But there was also a faint, acrid tang of burning, and then a smell which flooded Isabel with her childhood. Long grass; sweet hay; the prickle of stalks on the back of her bare legs as she lay and looked up into the vast, polished East Anglican sky. She heard the drowsy chirr of crickets, and the skirl of skylarks. She lay there hidden, like a hare in its form. She was perfectly happy. Far off another noise began: deep, thunderous. She knew that they were testing the engines.
Slowly Isabel lifted her head and came back to the room. It was impossible that a greatcoat bundled away in a cupboard for years could smell of summer fields.”

Later, after Philip has gone out on an emergency, there is a knock on the window. Outside is a handsome RAF man wanting to come in.

Although it is really not that many years since the war, to Isabel a very young woman, who was an adolescent during the war, it already seems remote. During the war, Isabel had lived with her aunt and cousin in Suffolk near another airfield, she well knows the sound of the aircraft as they head out on a mission. Now, spending hours by herself in a house she doesn’t much like, close to another, now, deserted airfield Isabel is frequently reminded of those days, the sound of the planes leaving and returning.

As her mysterious visitor comes back again and again, a man she feels she knows when she first sees him, Isabel begins to have memories that are not her own. The man’s name is Alec, and he talks of heading out on another ops – Isabel takes everything he says as being perfectly normal, they speak of things she previously had no knowledge of. As time goes on, Isabel becomes, more and more confused, and still the greatcoat is spread on top of her bed at night. Gradually Isabel draws closer to this man, his visits become everything to her and she has started hiding things from her husband. Slowly Isabel begins to feel she must try to get back to herself, involve herself in the local community of which she had been so nervous, become a good doctor’s wife, and have a child. Philip buys Isabel a hideous eiderdown to keep her warm, and Isabel decides to get rid of the greatcoat. She only hopes it isn’t too late.

“All that purpose and protection was folding around her, but it could turn against her too. She had only to open her mouth and he would hate her. She was afraid that some force stronger than herself, some demon of self-destruction, would put words into her mouth and make her speak out.”

Naturally things are not as straightforward as all that – the past reverberates still – and Isabel struggles to free herself from it.

If I am honest – but not being a great connoisseur of ghost tales – I didn’t find this story to be particularly scary or even that chilling – although it is well written, atmospheric and a good quick read. Helen Dunmore’s characters are always so well explored, and I loved the way Dunmore portrayed the world of a new 1950’s wife. Ridiculously – it must seem to us – Isabel’s husband is against her going back to work despite her excellent qualifications, her boredom, loneliness and social isolation are tangible – and it is this aspect that I found particularly interesting.


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Helen Dunmore is a prolific and award winning author, yet this is only the fourth of her novels I have read. I now think I really must make an effort to read the rest. This 1996 novel is an impressive family drama with a fascinating psychological slant.
Dunmore’s excellent writing, with its sultry descriptions of place, draws the reader into the Sussex countryside during a scorching summer, and the lives of a group of rather unlikeable characters. There is a kind of chilly sensuality too in the affair that develops between two of the characters, their coldness perhaps heightened by the backdrop of a record breaking summer. Beware of reading this novel when hungry, there is an enormous amount of food too, the cooking, shopping planning and eating of food, there is a sensuality to this too, the greed of it going hand in hand with the illicit sex.

“Richard hasn’t moved, except to take off his shoes and socks. He lies back with his feet in the sun, eyes shut. His feet are pale, naked-looking, city feet.
‘Here you are’
We dig into the crust, the cream, the fruit. The edges of the pie cream are just beginning, to swim in the heat already. I’ve always liked eating with Richard, because he is greedy, as I am. You can always tell. He leaves the plumpest gooseberry until last, to duck it in its own pond of cream. The sugar grits pleasantly on my teeth.”

‘Talking to the Dead’ is the story of sisters Isabel and Nina. Isabel lives in Sussex with her husband Richard in a house rented in her own name, where her friends – like Edward- come to stay for days and weeks at a time. When Isabel gives birth to her first child Antony – there are severe complications, and Richard asks her sister Nina to leave London to help the young nanny Susan, look after Isabel. Nina, a photographer and artist is devoted to her sister and is happy to spend time with her and the baby. Soon after arriving at her sister’s house Nina embarks on an affair with Richard, as already psychologically fragile Isabel’s behaviour gradually starts to cause concern. Cloistered away with her bitchy friend Edward for hours at a time, Isabel seems reluctant to leave the house, not even going into her beloved garden with which she had formerly been almost obsessed. Shut up in her sister’s house and garden during a ferociously hot summer, Nina begins to feel the strain of caring for her delicate sister and tiny baby, reminding her of a time she would rather forget.

“I am sick of it all. Milk and blood and babies. I lug another bucket down the path, the dark water shivering inside it. Water slops over my bare feet and raises scent from the dust. These trees should never have been planted in a drought. I heft the bucket and walk on, all my skin prickling with attention. I’m waiting. I leave the full bucket standing by the trees and wander on through the gloom, down to the raspberry canes. There are big moths flying. When they land patches of white show up on their wings so they look like jigsaws. Daytime life closes down, and night life begins with its own excitement. I wish I was in the city now, where day and night brush each other for hours. I wish I was in a taxi, hurtling round the corners of parks as they turn from blue to black with dusk.”

For Isabel and Nina share a tragic past, from the time when they lived in St. Ives as children. The secrets of this past gradually begin to reveal themselves through the memories of the sisters. This is a fantastically readable novel, the characters are not very likeable, but I never think that matters, indeed it can make a novel all the more interesting. Just when the reader may think they have it all tapped, Dunmore gently twists the knife – great stuff.

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