Book Review: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

This novel was the first to win the Orange Prize in 1996, a prize that has had a few reincarnations, including the Baileys Prize and now simply The Women’s Prize for Fiction. It’s nice to think that Dunmore got the prize off to a flying start (just check out the people who have received the award since), especially as the author died a couple of years ago. Fortunately she left a fine backlist to dip into.

A Spell of Winter is a historical novel about two siblings, Cathy and Rob, whose parents have left them in the care of their grandfather and the servants that run his crumbling country house. No one talks about their mother, who has abandoned them to live in the south of France – she was a bit wild, with crazy Irish hair that poor young Cathy seems to have inherited. Their dad is in a home for the insane. They visit him one day as small children under the care of Miss Gallagher, the meddling governess who adores young Cathy but loathes Rob. The visit does not go well.

Mostly the children run wild in the woods and there is a sense of nature, both bounteous and grisly in Dunmore’s atmospheric setting where images of violence against small animals recur. Miss Gallagher fears for Cathy, as does her grandfather, and at seventeen, Cathy is introduced to Mr Bullivant, the wealthy new owner of the neighbouring estate who is fresh from Italy. He collects art, is pleasant company and knows Cathy’s mother. He also worries about Cathy and encourages her to leave and see the world, but she would rather stay at home with her grandfather.

‘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.

Everyone is right to fear for Cathy, as it turn out, and events reach a shocking climax, but with the First World War not far away, it seems everything’s is in a state of flux. Soon a new order will sweep through and you can’t help feeling that perhaps it needs to. The crumbling house with its wintry Gothic mood is perhaps symptomatic of the era and contrasts interestingly with Mr Bullivant’s stories of his Mediterranean home and his plans to replicate it in England.

A Spell of Winter is one of those novels that pulls you in with its secrets and sense of impending doom. Cathy’s intensity, her determination and her desire for things to stay the same add tension. But then all the characters are strongly drawn often with contradictory aspects to their character – the maid, Kate, is impulsive but wise; Miss Gallagaher can be rigid about rules but is also sentimental.

What particularly lifts the novel above being just another well-told story is the magic of Dunmore’s writing which is finely crafted in a way that is poetic, creative and vivid. And this is what keeps you reading, even when things get a little icky (don’t let the prologue put you off). This is a small work of brilliance and a four out of five read from me.