Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore

One of the reading challenges I have been participating in during 2018 is the What’s in a Name? challenge which involves reading books with certain words in the title. Having reached November with only four of the six required books completed, it was looking unlikely that I would be able to finish the challenge, but I’m pleased to say that I have managed to squeeze the final two books into my December reading – starting with this one, Zennor in Darkness (a book with a title that begins with Z).

Published in 1993, Zennor in Darkness was Helen Dunmore’s first novel. I had high hopes for it, as I’ve enjoyed some of her others, particularly Exposure and Birdcage Walk. Unfortunately, although there were things that I liked about this one, I was slightly disappointed with it, even more so because most people who have read it seem to have loved it and I’m sorry that I couldn’t love it too.

The novel is set in 1917 in Zennor, a village on the coast of Cornwall where the author DH Lawrence lives for a while during the First World War. Hoping to find some peace and quiet away from the controversy caused by the recent publication of his novel, The Rainbow, Lawrence and his wife Frieda have decided to rent a cottage in Zennor where they can wait for the war to end and for a time when he may be able to resume his writing career. But even as Lawrence gets to know the local farming families and discovers the charms of rural life, he finds himself the centre of controversy yet again – this time because of Frieda, who happens to be German. The villagers view Frieda with suspicion, disapproving of her red stockings and her German songs, and convinced that she and Lawrence are sending signals to the U-boats lurking off the Cornish coast:

‘All the same though, there are things not right up there. They say they’ve put different coloured curtains up. In the same window.’
‘Why, whatever would they want to do that for?’
‘In the window looking over the sea.’
‘You mean -‘

One person who doesn’t care about the gossip and who is happy to befriend the Lawrences anyway is Clare Coyne, a young woman who lives with her widowed father. Clare is a talented artist and is helping to illustrate a new book her father is writing on botany; she is also in love with her cousin, John William Treveal, who is home on leave from the trenches before starting his training as an officer. The rest of the family are unaware of Clare’s feelings for John William, so she keeps her fears and worries for him to herself, hoping that as he has survived this long, he will continue to survive and will come back to her when the war is over.

The novel is partly about Clare’s relationship with DH Lawrence and partly about her love for John William, but I felt that the two elements of the story didn’t work together very well and could have formed the basis of two separate books. I found the central love story by far the most engaging and interesting aspect of the novel, while the inclusion of Lawrence added very little for me. I couldn’t help making comparisons with Mr Mac and Me by Esther Freud, a very similar story about the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh, where I thought the blending of real historical characters and fictional ones was more successful.

I did love the portrayal of life in a small village during the war, touching on topics such as shell shock, desertion and the effects of war not only on those who are fighting in it but on the loved ones they leave behind. The writing is certainly beautiful – both poetic and insightful, with some lovely descriptions – but books written in third person present tense are often a problem for me and that was the case here as I found it distracting and emotionally distancing. I think the writing style is what prevented me from enjoying this book as much as I’d hoped to. Not a favourite by Helen Dunmore, then, but I will continue to read her books and will hope for better luck next time.

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I would like to take this opportunity to wish you all a Merry Christmas! I’ll be back soon with my books of the year, my December Commonplace Book and maybe another review or two before New Year.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore

Helen Dunmore’s Exposure was one of my favourite books of 2016, so when I saw that she had a new one coming out last year, I knew I wanted to read it. The early reviews seemed to be very mixed, though, so I didn’t rush to get hold of a copy and it wasn’t until the days between Christmas and New Year that I finally got round to reading it.

I mustn’t have read those reviews very closely because I had the impression that this was a book about the French Revolution – but that’s not really true. The story is set in England and although events taking place across the Channel do have an effect on the lives of our characters, all of this is happening at a distance and is not the focus of the novel. The main theme of Birdcage Walk, according to Helen Dunmore herself and hinted at in the opening chapters, is the temporary nature of human life and the way so many of us leave behind very little evidence of our existence when we die. Dunmore states in her Afterword that she wanted to show that everyone has shaped the future in some way, by influencing those around them, even if they then disappear without trace. This is particularly poignant when you consider that while she was writing this novel she was already seriously ill with the cancer that would soon take her life.

But back to the plot of Birdcage Walk. The main part of the story is set in Bristol in 1792. Lizzie Fawkes’ husband, John Diner Tredevant (known simply as Diner) is a property developer who has started to build a terrace of houses with magnificent views of the Avon Gorge. With war against France on the horizon, however, this is a bad time to be trying to sell houses. Lizzie can see that her husband is troubled but is he just worried about the failure of his building project or is there something else on his mind?

Dunmore’s portrayal of Diner is excellent; he is a jealous, possessive and controlling husband who resents Lizzie having relationships with any other friends or family members apart from himself – but it is clear that something terrible has happened in his past, leaving him unhappy and disturbed. We find out very early in the novel what that something probably is, which takes away part of the suspense, but I think there is still plenty of tension in waiting to see when and how Lizzie will learn the truth.

The characterisation in general is very good; I found Lizzie’s mother, the writer Julia Fawkes and her husband Augustus particularly interesting to read about. Julia’s role in the story is brief, but she is one of the characters Dunmore uses to illustrate her point about a person’s influence living on after their words have faded away. Augustus, with his strong political views but lack of insight when it comes to the everyday things going on around him, also feels believable and real.

As I’ve said, the French Revolution is played out in the background with news reaching our characters mainly in the form of letters and newspaper reports. This means we don’t have the excitement of being thrown directly into the events of the Revolution, but it is still interesting to see things from the perspective of people who were less directly involved. Most of the novel, though, is concerned with more domestic issues: Lizzie’s personal relationship with Diner and her efforts to care for her baby brother Thomas despite Diner’s opposition.

I didn’t like Birdcage Walk quite as much as Exposure, but I still found it atmospheric and beautifully written. It’s so sad that there won’t be any more books from Helen Dunmore, but as I have only read three of them so far (The Lie is the other) I can still look forward to reading her others.

My Commonplace Book: August 2016

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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Margaret Beaufort

She could have asked, of course, but she would not get any answers. She thought of all the words that went unspoken in the world, throughout time: what happened to them, where did they go? What would happen if they were all spoken? How different would the world be then?

Succession by Livi Michael (2014)

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“Molly, I cannot have you speaking so to Lady Harriet,” said Mrs. Gibson, as soon as she was left alone with her stepdaughter. “You would never have known her at all if it had not been for me, and don’t be always putting yourself into our conversation.”

“But I must speak if she asks me questions,” pleaded Molly.

“Well! if you must, you must, I acknowledge. I’m candid about that at any rate. But there’s no need for you to set up to have an opinion at your age.”

“I don’t know how to help it,” said Molly.

Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell (1865)

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I know very little about my mother, and have no family to help me fill in the gaps. I am an only child and my father’s two elder sisters died several years ago. I am intrigued by this photograph and would like to find out more about the people in it…I hope you don’t mind me asking all these questions. Any information you could offer would mean a great deal to me.

The People in the Photo by Hélène Gestern (2011)

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Penny dreadful

Since cheap magazines were traded on street corners, in playgrounds and factory yards, each issue could have many readers. Penny fiction was Britain’s first taste of mass-produced popular culture for the young, and was often held responsible for the decay of literature and of morality.

The Wicked Boy by Kate Summerscale (2016)

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It can’t have been much of a life, can it? for a woman of over seventy, living alone in lodgings, in debt to her landlady, wearing our cast-off clothes, trotting round after jobs that never materialised, writing articles that nobody would publish, and eating bread and margarine for supper. There really was something rather pathetic about that awful room of hers – crowded with papers full of impossible schemes…I don’t suppose there can ever have been anyone whose life was much less important, or who had less influence on anybody else.

Poor Caroline by Winifred Holtby (1931)

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It was something he’d learned in the war: only think about what is directly in front of you. No, that wasn’t quite right. He’d had to plan ahead all the time…but not to feel ahead. For a man of Giles’s far-seeing, intricate temperament that had been a hard lesson. But Simon, he could see, knew it by instinct.

Exposure by Helen Dunmore (2016)

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Red Cocker Spaniel

Hers was the pale worn face of an invalid, cut off from air, light, freedom. His was the warm ruddy face of a young animal; instinct with health and energy. Broken asunder, yet made in the same mould, could it be that each completed what was dormant in the other? She might have been — all that; and he — But no. Between them lay the widest gulf that can separate one being from another. She spoke. He was dumb. She was woman; he was dog. Thus closely united, thus immensely divided, they gazed at each other.

Flush by Virginia Woolf (1933)

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“I play,” he once said to me, “for the best musician in the world – he may not be there, but I play as if he were”. I thought to myself that he was always there when Sebastian was playing, but I did not say so, for that was the kind of thing which did not please him.

The Little Chronicle of Magdalena Bach by Esther Meynell (1925)

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It is quite beautiful, a metaphoric triumph over adversity, with every millimetre of its gnarled trunk proudly displaying its struggle.
I wonder now why humans hate the map of their life that appears on their own bodies, when a tree like this, or a faded painting, or a near-derelict uninhabited building is lauded for its antiquity.

The Olive Tree by Lucinda Riley (2016)

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I cannot say – I had misjudged him before – yet I do think, in that moment, he had his battle to fight – one fierce as his fiercest charge. Cosmas waited, devouring him with his eyes. And I waited; a sudden, amazing sense springing up in me, that if he yielded, as I had so desired him to yield, this King who might be would never be the Prince whom I had served and loved.

Rupert, by the Grace of God by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1899)

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louisedelavalliere

“Life, monsieur,” said Planchet, laughing, “is capital which a man ought to invest as sensibly as he possibly can.”

Louise de la Vallière by Alexandre Dumas (1850)

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Hélène wondered whether the lady was protesting a bit too much in order to convince her, or to convince herself. Could she start a new life at her age? You can start a new game of cards or redecorate the living room, but life itself, can you do that again?

The Travels of Daniel Ascher by Déborah Lévy-Bertherat (2013)

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And now? Overseas in England, his brethren in the faith were fighting, were dying, to achieve the freedom which he had sought. Before his eyes rose the grey, thronged sea-port town he knew, the richer fields, the narrower skies; and yet here, in this strenuous bleakness, he had found his soul.

Cornet Strong of Ireton’s Horse by Dora Greenwell McChesney (1903)

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Love for her was to be a slow, ripening process, the fruit of many meetings and mutual interests. She had never believed in love at first sight. That surely, she told herself, was an invention of novelists, whose business it was to make everything slightly larger than life.

The Jewelled Snuff Box by Alice Chetwynd Ley (1959)

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Fountains Abbey 1

The queen responded a week later. “We are sending a young gentleman up to Yorkshire to resolve the matter. We do not wish to hear from you again.”

It was a measure of Mr Aislabie’s poor standing at court that I was the young gentleman in question.

A Death at Fountains Abbey by Antonia Hodgson (2016)

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Favourite books this month: Wives and Daughters, Flush and Exposure

Exposure by Helen Dunmore

Exposure What a great book! I have to admit, I wasn’t sure about reading it; I thought Helen Dunmore’s previous novel, The Lie, was disappointing, and the descriptions of this one as a Cold War spy novel didn’t sound very appealing to me. I wanted to give Dunmore another chance, though, so I decided it would be worth giving Exposure a try.

The first thing I need to say is that although Exposure certainly is a Cold War spy novel of sorts, it’s also a compelling story of love and betrayal, secrets and lies, as seen through the eyes of a wonderful cast of strong and complex characters. One of them, Simon Callington, is a quiet, unambitious young man who works for the Admiralty in London and who looks forward to coming home to his wife and children at the end of each day. The last thing he wants is to be involved in any controversy, but that is exactly what happens one night in November 1960 when he receives a call for help from his friend and colleague, Giles Holloway.

As a student, Simon had been drawn to Giles because he was older and more sophisticated; now, however, Giles is a rather sad and lonely man with a drink problem, and when he falls down the stairs and ends up in hospital with a broken leg, Simon is the only person he feels he can trust. Just before he fell, Giles was working on a secret file – a file he should never have brought home from work – and he needs Simon to retrieve it from his desk and return it to the office before anyone notices it was missing. Simon agrees, but unknown to him, Giles’s home is being watched.

The decisions Simon makes on that fateful night and in the days which follow will have serious consequences for both Simon himself and for his family – his wife, Lily, and their three children, Paul, Sally and Bridget. It’s Lily, in my opinion, who is the real star of this novel. Having fled to England with her mother as Jewish refugees in the 1930s, she has spent her whole adult life trying to hide her German origins and now, with Simon in trouble, it’s more important than ever that her past is kept a secret. Lily is put under a huge amount of pressure, yet remains strong, resourceful and determined to do whatever it takes to protect her husband and children.

Simon also has a secret which he has been concealing even from Lily and if it is revealed his situation will become even more precarious than it already is. With all three of our main characters – Giles, Simon and Lily – at risk of exposure, the tension and the atmosphere of darkness and danger build and build throughout the story. The writing and structure of the novel are both excellent, dipping into the past where necessary to explore a character’s background, helping us to understand the person they are in the present. Dunmore also includes just enough period detail to set the story firmly in the early 1960s without going into an excessive amount of description.

Some elements of the novel made me think of the plot of E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children (and I’m sure we’re supposed to make the connection) but Exposure is also an exciting and original novel in its own right. I loved it and am so pleased I didn’t let The Lie put me off reading more of Helen Dunmore’s books!

The Lie by Helen Dunmore

The Lie With 2014 being the centenary of the First World War, I had intended to read lots of war-related books this year. For some reason, though, that hasn’t happened; this is only the second or third I’ve read. Actually, I did start to read The Lie in January but wasn’t in the right mood for it and decided to leave it and try again later. That was obviously the correct decision because this time I was drawn into the story from the beginning.

The Lie is set in Cornwall in 1920 and tells the story of Daniel, a young man who has just returned from the war to the village where he grew up. Things have changed during his absence and both of his parents are now dead. Homeless and alone, Daniel is grateful for an offer of food and shelter from Mary Pascoe, a reclusive elderly woman who had known his mother. As Daniel works on Mary’s land in return for the help she is giving him, he has plenty of time to think and reminisce.

Some of his memories are of his childhood, growing up with Frederick and Felicia, the children from the big house where his mother worked as a cleaner. Others are more recent memories – terrible, haunting memories of the war, where he witnessed Frederick’s death in the trenches. Struggling to come to terms with what has happened to his friend, Daniel is reunited with Frederick’s sister, Felicia, now a young war widow with a little girl of her own. Felicia is also grieving, having lost both her husband and her brother, and she and Daniel are able to offer each other some comfort. But when Mary Pascoe asks Daniel to do something for her, a lie is told which could threaten his chance of future happiness.

This is a quiet, slow-paced novel and requires some patience from the reader, but Daniel is an interesting character who is worth getting to know. While the story jumps backwards and forwards in time, covering three different periods in Daniel’s life, the transitions from one to the other feel smooth and natural and each strand of the story explores several different aspects of the Great War. First there are the childhood sections which depict the class divide that existed in pre-war Britain: the intelligent, literary Daniel has to leave school at eleven to start working, while the less academic Frederick is sent to private school. The scenes that are actually set during the war describe all the horrors of life in the trenches, and finally, the parts of the story set in 1920 show us how the war has changed Daniel, his community and the wider world forever.

Daniel is our narrator but Frederick is a constant presence in the book and in Daniel’s mind. The relationship between the two men forms a big part of the story and the circumstances of Frederick’s death (leading to another lie being told) haunt Daniel to the point where he imagines he sees his old friend standing by his bed covered in the mud of the trenches. But I particularly liked the portrayal of Frederick’s sister, Felicia, and can only imagine how difficult life must have been for a young woman, widowed and alone with a baby to raise amid the aftermath of war.

Although I did find a lot to like about The Lie, it didn’t quite have the emotional impact on me that I would have expected from a novel dealing with such a tragic subject and for that reason I can’t say that I loved this book. It’s the first Helen Dunmore book I’ve read, though, and I’m hoping I might enjoy one of her others more than this one.