Book review – “Zennor in Darkness” by Helen Dunmore

This was the April choice for my Facebook Reading Challenge. At the start of the year I choose a particular theme for each month and April’s was historical fiction. Helen Dunmore was not much on my radar until I read Birdcage Walk last year, her final novel, published posthumously (Dunmore died in 2017). I thought the book was incredible and I was desperate to read more of her work. Dunmore was also a poet and acclaimed short story writer, but her historical fiction is what she is best known for, I think, and it is outstanding. Zennor in Darkness was in fact her debut novel, published in 1993, and it won the McKitterick Prize, which is awarded to debut novels of authors over 40 (there is hope for me yet!) I was open-minded; I did not expect it to be as polished as Birdcage Walk, in which she has fully matured as a writer and truly mastered her craft, but I did think it would be interesting to observe her burgeoning talent and to be able to see how she evolved as an artist.

Zennor in DarknessI really enjoyed Zennor in Darkness. It is a great story, two stories really, which become intertwined. Clare Coyne is the only daughter of widowed Francis Coyne, and the pair live together in the small town of Zennor in Cornwall. Clare’s mother was born there and the family moved from London when Clare was a baby in order to be near family. Clare’s father’s family had a higher social status, and Clare is clearly ‘different’ from her Cornish cousins, grandparents and aunts, with whom she has spent so much time, but Clare is largely disconnected from her paternal grandparents. Francis Coyne is an ineffectual character, a botanist who earns very little money from his publishing, who spends more time with his books than with his daughter, and who does not seem to understand her on any level. Clare has artistic ability and is a talented artist. She spends her time looking after her father, keeping house, and drawing plants for his latest book project.

Clare is very close to her cousins of her own age, particularly the girls Peggy and Hannah, and her slightly older male cousin, John. The novel is set in 1917, when Britain was in a state of trauma about its involvement in the First World War, the lives lost and the lives destroyed by battle.

Another (temporary) resident of the small Cornish community is the author DH Lawrence, who is renting a house there with his German wife Frieda (this part of the story is based on fact). The couple left London as Lawrence’s anti-war views had aroused great hostility, not helped by the fact of being married to a German. In Cornwall the couple hoped to find peace and quiet, but as the novel progresses it becomes increasingly clear that some of the locals are suspicious of Lawrence, the outsider, the anti-patriot, and rumours spread that Frieda is actually a spy; the audacious red curtains hanging in the window of their rented cottage are thought to be signals to passing German U-boats!

Clare strikes up a friendship with the Lawrences, and is excited by their bohemian lifestyle, such a contrast to her own humdrum life and community. Clare also becomes romantically and sexually involved with her beloved cousin John when he returns home briefly on leave from the trenches. Like Clare, John is a cut above, had ambitions to be a doctor when he was younger, though the war put paid to that. His ability has been recognised, however, and at the end of his leave he is to begin officer training.

The title of the novel has many meanings – the ‘Darkness’ could refer to the dark times of the war and the attendant human suffering, but also to the sometimes narrow-minded attitudes of the local community to the outsider Lawrence, to Clare and Francis even. The setting of the novel is at times idyllic; there is a sense of suspension of time and escape from war (in part why the Lawrences moved there), particularly in the wonderful scenes at the beginning of the girls paddling in the sea and the recollections of the idyllic rural childhood they enjoyed. But as the novel progresses, darkness descends ever more over the events. There is no ‘happy ending’ here (how could there be, set as it is in the First World War?) but there is a kind of peace, a reconciling and a coming of age which is partly positive.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it will spur me on to read more of Helen Dunmore.

Recommended.

Books to look out for this Spring

The freaky February weather is behind us, those treacherous early Spring storms seem to have passed, and there are signs of Spring – things are sprouting in my garden (apart from all those snowdrops I planted last Autumn – hmm!) and it is warm enough to take the thick down lining out of my winter coat. The London Book Fair has been taking place this week, with all those publishers deciding what we are going to be reading in the coming months, and there are some fantastic new books to look out for. With the Easter holidays coming up in the next month or so, you may be looking for something to read yourself. Here are some of the newly published or soon to be published books that have caught my eye

The FiveThe Five by Hallie Rubenhold

This book has been getting a lot of coverage and tells the stories of the women raped and murdered in Victorian London by Jack the Ripper. Reclaiming a space for these women, the author seeks to make them more than just victims.

 

 

 

 

BookwormBookworm: a memoir of childhood reading by Lucy Mangan

I have been reading Lucy Mangan’s columns in The Guardian for years and have always loved her writing style. I have also always identified with the passion for reading she found she had as an introverted child. This looks like a nice read and one that will take you back to characters and places you may also have loved as a child.

 

 

SpringSpring by Ali Smith

The third in Ali Smith’s seasonal quartet. Autumn was published in 2016 and was shortlisted for the Man Booker in that year. Winter was published in 2017 (still on my TBR list) and here we now have Spring, due for publication on 28 March. It concerns the lives of three people living in a time of war in a country facing a crisis of identity. Remind you of anywhere?

 

 

 

girl balancingGirl, Balancing by Helen Dunmore

Having just completed Birdcage Walk, I’m really keen to get into some more Helen Dunmore and this collection of short stories looks like a perfect one to take on holiday. I don’t read very many short stories so this will be a bit of a departure for me.

 

 

 

LannyLanny by Max Porter

Just read a review of this and it sounds so intriguing that I can’t wait to get hold of it. Set in a small village not far from London, this book is about the many residents past and present who have lived there, and about the culture, history and folklore of the place, embodied by the slumbering woodland spirit Dead Papa Toothwort.

 

 

 

That should keep me going for a while!

What books are you looking forward to reading this Spring?

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Book review – “Birdcage Walk” by Helen Dunmore

It has come to my notice in the last couple of years that I really enjoy historical fiction, yet if you’d asked me that ten years ago I might have been quite sniffy about it, thinking of it as a more poular rather than literary genre. Perhaps it’s because the book I have been birthing over the last year or so (almost ready to send out, yay!) is largely historical, so I’ve grown acutely aware of the additional challenges of research, of picturing a scene in my mind’s eye that doesn’t include all the day to day contemporary things we take for granted, as well as trying to create an authentic narrative voice, even getting the language right. It’s also something more basic than that though – many historical novels have really touched something quite deep in me. I’m thinking Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus, Tracy Chevalier’s The Last Runaway, even Agatha Christie. And many of the books that I think of as my all-time favourites are also historical  – Deborah Moggach’s Tulip Fever, Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety and Andrea Levy’s Small Island all look back as a way of making sense of the now. History can teach us a great deal.

Birdcage Walk imgA dear friend gave me Helen Dunmore’s final novel, published posthumously, Birdcage Walk, for my birthday last year and I have only just got around to reading it. I had read some quite mixed reactions, some feeling it wasn’t her best or that it had not been as well edited as it might have been, which is understandable. I am not familiar with Dunmore’s other novels so don’t have a view on how it compares. It meant I approached it with some trepidation, however.

The novel is set in 1792 in Bristol, with the aftermath of the French Revolution playing out across the Channel, and its effects beginning to be felt in England. The central character Lizzie is married to a builder John Diner Tredevant, known as Diner, who has invested heavily (financially and emotionally) in the construction of a grand terrace in the city. The couple’s future depends on the success of the project, but political unrest has created economic uncertainty and the half-built, never-to-be-completed terrace is a motif for the couple’s relationship. As financial pressure builds, stress begins to expose the fragile foundation of Diner’s personality, cracks are revealed in their marriage and questions begin to arise about the mysterious circumstances of Diner’s first wife who died suddenly in France.

Lizzie comes from a more middle-class intellectual background; her mother is a Radical writer and supporter of the insurgency against the monarchy in France, as is Lizzie’s stepfather Augustus. They were not fully in support of Lizzie’s marriage, and it is hinted that they feared Diner was her intellectual inferior, and that she would not thrive with him, as well as being of a different mind to them politically. It seems that Lizzie married him because he represented a solidity and security that she never had growing up; she clearly holds Augustus in some contempt at times, his intellectual pursuit seems ineffectual to her. When Lizzie’s mother dies in childbirth, becoming pregnant at a dangerously late stage in her life, everything in Lizzie’s world begins to break down.

I can see why some regard the novel as somehow ‘incomplete’ – some of the characters are not fully drawn, Diner, for example. For me, his behaviour was not entirely coherent and I did not fully ‘get’ what drew him and Lizzie together, they seem so un-alike, and this is slightly problematic as the entire plot turns on the dynamics of their relationship. A quote from the Daily Mail on the jacket describes it as a “psychological thriller”, but that’s not quite how it felt to me. If anything, it’s more a book about character than plot.

Like the book I am working on, it is also about a journey of discovery, of uncovering the past and of the fleeting part we all play in history and how individual stories are so easily lost.

Whether or not Birdcage Walk is Dunmore’s best (if I could write this well, I’d be happy!) it has made me want to explore her other work as I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Recommended reading.

How do you feel Birdcage Walk compares with Dunmore’s other novels?

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