Helen Dunmore was a British writer who produced an impressive amount of work over the past thirty years with dozens of novels, children's books, short stories and poetry collections. She's someone I always meant to read but never got around to. Sadly she died in 2017, but the following year her final poetry collection posthumously won the Costa Book Awards Book of the Year. Since I'm currently reading the novels longlisted for this year's Women's Prize I thought I'd go back and read Dunmore's “A Spell of Winter” which won this award's very first prize in 1996 (when it was known as the Orange Prize.) The story is told from the point of view of Catherine who grows up in a country estate with her brother Rob and their grandfather. Their father is housed in an asylum and their mother is a figure of local scandal who lives in France. The children are never told exactly what caused their family to splinter apart so they grow to rely solely on each other in this circumscribed world. But as they enter adulthood the close bond they share must be left behind though Catherine ardently wants things to remain the same. There are some very surprising twists in this novel and I'm still not entirely sure what to make of it.
The novel is mostly made up of Catherine's sensory experience as she describes her life in the estate and changing relationships with people associated with it. There are a lot of beautiful descriptions and clever glimpses of psychological insight. These include humorous descriptions such as a comment about how the girl's teacher dresses so darkly: “Miss Gallagher could make a sunny day look like a funeral.” Or there are sometimes larger insights such as this description about how Catherine relates to history: “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.” In this way, the sharp observations and melancholy tone of the story reminded me of Marilynne Robinson brilliant novel “Housekeeping”.
Though the plot takes a couple surprising turns in a way that builds a lot of suspense, I found the end of the novel to be somewhat disappointing and lackadaisical. It's odd because it feels like it ends at what should be a very dramatic point, but instead of feeling gripped it felt like a glum inevitability. I'm not someone who often gets overly concerned with plot as I can enjoy beautiful writing and rich descriptions of everyday experience. But ultimately I found it hard to relate to or understand Catherine which left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed and mystified by the book as a whole. I'll be curious now to go back and read what people made of this novel at the time since it was a prize winner. And, though this novel wasn't an entirely satisfying experience, I'll be very curious to read more of Dunmore's writing in the future.