Saturday 5 February 2011

A Spell of Winter

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore was the first winner of the Orange Fiction Prize back in 1996. Looking at the list in the sidebar I realised that this mini challenge has been the source of a lot of excellent books. They have all left a strong impression on me and I would definitely recommend the Orange Prize shortlists to anyone seeking out some really good writing.

It is interesting to read the reviews on the back cover: the broadsheets, Sunday Times, Observer and Guardian all comment on her wonderful writing, "lyrical, dreamy intensity", where the Daily Mail describes it as a story of "forbidden passions" with "terrible consequences". This book is not really a tale of forbidden passion, Cathy was well and truly messed up long before the story begins. It is the story of Cathy, and Rob, siblings, whose mother has abandoned them and whose father has had a breakdown, is institutionalised and then dies, leaving them in the care of their grandfather and the rather insidious Miss Gallagher. It is Cathy who tells the story of their growing up in an affluent but declining household, it seems to be Scotland, or at least the North, set at the beginning of the 20th century. They have grown up with only each other for support and companionship and in a moment of utter confusion their relationship becomes physical, something they understand to be unacceptable but they are both unable and unwilling to stop. In spite of Rob's attachment to the beautiful Livvy and Mr Bullivant's unspoken courting of Cathy they continue to seek solace in each other. Yes, lots of both foreseeable and unexpected consequences ensue, but it is not the crux of the tale. The First World War intervenes in all their lives but it seems to remain somewhat distant. After Cathy is abandoned for a second time she is left to fend for herself and her grandfather though the privations of the war and the even further decline of their fortunes.

It is partly a portrait of mental illness, since she is plainly suffering from a mixture of depression and a sense of total dislocation, and her terror of being institutionalised like her father; a veiled threat made by Miss Gallagher after she has discovered Cathy and Rob's secret. The book is dominated by her sense of abandonment. She dwells frequently on flashbacks to incidents of her childhood, both memories of her father in hospital and older ones of her mother. She clings desperately to the few people that give her a sense of reality. The story comes from a time when people told children nothing, mental illness was hidden and shameful, so Rob and Cathy are left with so many unanswered questions. She is aware of the fact that she drifts aimlessly though life but seems careless of this. She has lived such a narrow confined existence that mostly I felt pity for her, but then when she was thrust into a situation of having to take charge she does so with strength and courage. There is an incident where she sees the mess of the stables and begins to clean them and scrub the yard and you can see her realising that it is her indolence that is her biggest problem and she relishes the challenge of hard work.

The book is very atmospheric, taking place much of the time inside Cathy's head, hearing her confused thoughts and feelings. Sometimes she is a grown young woman but often she reverts back to a little child, desperately needing to be loved and taken care of, craving the unconditional love that only a mother is supposed to give. It is hard, as usual, to put your finger on what makes it so good. So a few quotes: these ones about Cathy and what makes her tick:

"Walking had become dreamlike, one foot after another. Mr Bullivant was in my mind. George Bullivant. I saw him reaching up to sweep a layer of snow off Diana's arm, then I saw him pouring out for me a thin golden stream of tea, and buttering a muffin to put on my plate. He had seen my mother, stood beside her and talked to her. I could have gone on walking all night, not feeling cold, letting pictures rise in my mind. I have always loved journeys, because they absolve me from action." (p.94)

"But I also know that two people don't always need to tell things to one another. Secrets can cross from one person to the other without words, and suddenly you find that you've always known them. If a child was born from those two people, I wonder if it would be born knowing all their secrets, somewhere within. Perhaps that's why I was born with such heaviness inside me." (p.240)

Then lovely sentences like this:

"I didn't want to go back inside the house, and I waited there in the yard until the trace of his horse's hoofs had become quieter than dust falling." (p.198)

or this, describing her relationship with her grandfather:

"And yet Grandfather and I had swum into focus for one another, when for years we'd been shadows to one another, feared or ignored." (p.275)

And wonderful, understated descriptions; the army returns Rob's coat after he is declared 'missing, presumed dead':

"There was only the coat, because he hadn't been wearing it. It was sent back to me muddy, smelling of wool that has been packed while damp, and of wood smoke. There was nothing in the pockets. I shut my eyes the first time I felt deep into his pockets. When we used to walk side by side I would put my hand into his pocket and our fingers would meet and twine there. I felt the ridge of the seam, and the silky, expensive lining fabric. They had given me my money's-worth with that coat. There wasn't even the tiniest hole through which something might have fallen." (p.288)

The story has so much in it. Very strong characters: the wonderful, irreverent maid servant Kate; the creepy Miss Gallagher, Cathy's tutor who develops an obsessive, overbearing love for her; and more minor players like Mrs Blazer the cook, are all drawn with exquisite care. The political and social history, the war and the rise of the nouveau riche in the person of Mr Bullivant, while the 'old money' withers. The fact of the relationship between Cathy and Rob is only a consequence, a reaction to their situation, not some kind of sensationalised titillation, it comes and then passes and leaves only sadness in it's wake. A lovely book that, for all it was quite cold and dark much of the time, left me feeling light and hopeful.

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