A SPELL OF WINTER by Helen Dunmore
originally published in 1995
I had such a strange reaction to this book: I loved this more than anything I have read in a long time, but when I started thinking about writing this review, I had the hardest time putting my finger on why. Its structure is a bit messy and tonally inconsistent; it doesn’t really deliver anything promised on the blurb (not a fault in the book itself – but I think it’s bound to frustrate a lot of readers who go into expecting a mystery or a Shirley Jackson-esque haunted mansion tale); but it really came together for me and gave me one of the most enthralling reading experiences I have had in a while.
A Spell of Winter is a difficult book to categorize and difficult to explain without giving too much away – but it follows siblings Cathy and Rob who have spent their lives in a quasi-abandoned manor in the English countryside which belonged to their parents; their father is now dead and their mother ran off when they were young. As adults, Cathy and Rob’s relationship begins to develop into something forbidden, and it sets off a tragic chain of events that spread into the years of the First World War.
This was my first Helen Dunmore, which I decided to pick up as it won the inaugural Women’s Prize for Fiction back when it was known as the Orange Prize, and the first thing that struck me about it was how enchanting I found her prose. Even when you get past the arresting first sentence (‘“I saw an arm fall off a man once,” said Kate‘) the writing itself continued to beguile – her prose is descriptive and evocative without being overly flowery; there was something distinctly reminiscent of Daphne du Maurier there, and indeed the book’s setting and atmosphere called to mind Rebecca (though the comparisons really do stop there).
The other reason this book came alive for me is that Cathy was such a fascinating, sympathetic, well-developed character, and the depth of emotional complexity that Dunmore was able to excavate with this book was staggering. This book is about sexuality, societal restraints, and female agency, all examined through the lens of one woman’s fraught relationship with her own family inheritance. It all sounds like a rather standard female-centric historical fiction novel, but Cathy’s journey and Dunmore’s psychological insights took on a hard edge that subverted all of my expectations and then some.
I don’t think this is the kind of book that people intensely hate – I think it’s more of a ‘it was fine, nothing special’ for a lot of readers. So again, it’s hard to recommend this enthusiastically knowing that it’s bound to fall flat for a lot of people who find themselves disappointed by the (anticlimactic?) direction it takes. But I was so utterly enchanted and riveted by this book, and I cannot wait to see what else Dunmore has to offer.
You can pick up a copy of A Spell of Winter here on Book Depository.