I recently finished reading Helen Dunmore’s first novel, Zennor in Darkness. Published in 1993, the book won the McKitterick Prize the following year.
Zennor in Darkness is a World War One novel set in Cornwall. Essentially a love story between Clare Coyne and her cousin John, there’s also a fascinating sub-plot based on the true-life residency in Cornwall of DH Lawrence and his German born wife, Freida.
When John returns home on leave, prior to commencing officer training, his relationship with Clare becomes intense. But all is not well and in the ensuing tragedy Clare’s relationship with her father moves in a different direction. Meanwhile, the Lawrence’s are victimised within the neighbourhood and widely considered to be spying for the other side.
After reading In Our Infancy a few weeks ago, I was intrigued to read more about the women in the life of DH Lawrence. Although this is a fictionalised account, it’s based on real experiences and contributes to understanding the reasons for Lawrence’s antipathy towards his home country.
When she wrote the novel, Helen Dunmore was already an experienced writer of poetry and children’s fiction. Her beautifully lyrical descriptions of the sea and surrounding landscape, of buildings and nature are a joy to read.
The close, isolated and inward-looking rural community of which Clare, John and their family are part is explored and developed in detail with excellent portrayal of a rich cast of minor characters. The antipathy of the villagers, including some of Clare’s own relatives, towards suspicious strangers is a paradigm for the nationalistic fervor of the day.
Dunmore’s writing pertaining to the effect of war experiences on both soldiers and civilians is powerful, emotional and intense.
Zennor in Darkness is a fine novel except in one regard. The author hasn’t handled switching viewpoints while inside the head of one character or another at all well. This creates confusion for the reader and disrupts the flow of the novel when you have to re-read to sort out what’s happening. But otherwise, it’s an excellent book.
I’ve been reading Helen Dunmore novels for the last year or so and I’m a huge fan. Sadly, she died from cancer in 2017. Her final novel, Birdcage Walk, is magnificent and would be in my Top Twenty novels of all time. There are still a couple of her novels that I haven’t read yet which are waiting on my Kindle. Meanwhile I’m enjoying The Dig by John Preston having seen the film of the same title.
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