Tuesday, December 7, 2010

book review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

The backstory: A Spell of Winter won the first Orange Prize in 1996. I also enjoyed two of Helen Dunmore's novels earlier this year: The Siege, which was shortlisted for the Orange Prize in 2002, and its sequel, The Betrayal, which was longlisted for this year's Booker Prize.

The basics: This dark, gothic novel takes place in pre-war England and focuses on Catherine and her brother Rob. Their mother left them and their father went insane. They're rich enough to have help but poor enough to live in a crumbling estate. 

My thoughts: While I wouldn't say either of Dunmore's novels I read this year were terribly cheery, this one is truly dark, dreary, and disturbing; thankfully, it's beautifully written. 

Catherine narrates the story, but the reader can see through her naivete and decipher some of the secrets and lies she does not understand. There are also times she is remarkably astute and wise: "Grandfather and Mr Bullivant smiled at one another, but their smile was about me; it did not include me." (p. 60) She's a dynamic character who grows and comes into her own as the novel progresses. It's a natural, real coming of age within a context of horrors.

Because of the Gothic mystery and intrigue, this novel took some time to truly capture my interest in the story.  I liked the writing from the beginning, particularly because of Dunmore's dreamy descriptions of winter (my favorite season):
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 Gothic undertones were clear even though the details took time to build up:
The paintings disturbed the air. It was more than a vibration: the colours were as exulted as angels. (p. 87)
This novel is not for the faint of heart, but I adored it's juiciness and naughtiness. It's a novel the teenage me would not have found salacious, but I do now. It's salaciousness is shown through gorgeous language  that presents an intriguing contradiction.
Did other people have this insane drive to destroy what was best for them, and cherish what was worst? (p. 103)
This novel reads like a classic written in the time it's set rather than historical fiction. Perhaps because I found Catherine's voice so authentic, or perhaps the dialogue mimicked novels I've read that were written in the time this one was set, but this novel is authentic to both the modern reader and the time of its characters. 

Favorite quote: "I wonder sometimes, if it's the people themselves who keep you company, or the idea of them. The idea you have of them."

The verdict: I thoroughly enjoyed A Spell of Winter, and I am quite glad I read it during winter, as the cold creeps into the story in so many ways. I don't want to befriend these characters, but I sure would watch a reality tv show about their sordid and twisted lives.

Rating: 4.5 stars (out of 5)
Length: 320 pages
Publication date: March 13, 1995
Source: my local public library

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  1. I love dark, dreary, and disturbing, so this book is going right on the wish list. Thanks for sharing your awesome review and for adding so many delicious quotes!

  2. I really enjoyed The Betrayal - I'll have to give this one a try! Thanks for reviewing.

  3. This book would have totally passed me by since it's not a new release yet it sounds fantastic - thanks for bringing it my attention. This is why I think its so important to not just blog about the newest books!

  4. I recently read and reviewed this and I loved the writing. I can see the subject matter putting alot of people off this one but the overall setting and the quality of the writing lifts this one somewhat.

    Out of the 3 Dunmore novels I've read so far though this one was my least favorite. I still liked it I just prefered the other two books.

  5. I love a good Gothic and dark, disturbing read so I think I might need to add this one to the wish list! Your review certainly pulled me in (as always)!

  6. This one has been on my TBR pile for some time...and your review has made me want to move it up in the stacks! I love gothic novels...and novels with beautiful writing...sounds like I'll love this one too :)


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