A heroine named Cathy. Forbidden love. A once-proud family in a grand-but-ravaged old house --- leaky roof, a gaggle of servants --- somewhere in England. WUTHERING HEIGHTS? Nope, but in A SPELL OF WINTER, Helen Dunmore clearly claims the Brontean landscape, emotional as well as physical, as her territory. Winner of the Orange Prize for Fiction, a prestigious British literary award, the book came out six years ago in the UK but is appearing for the first time in America. Oddly, Dunmore's other books have already been published here --- or perhaps it's not so odd; perhaps American editors waded a few pages into this deeply gruesomely gothic tale and hastily waded out again, muttering, "No, thanks."
The book begins with a corpse's rotten arm falling off. Ulp. Next thing we know, little Cathy and her brother, Rob, are shooting a hare ("blood dripped steadily out from the hole in her thigh") and going off with their hideous/pathetic governess, Miss Gallagher (characterized with all the subtlety of the Wicked Witch of the West), to visit their father in the nuthouse. They are accompanied by descriptions that serve the same purpose as ominous organ music in a silent film --- stone lions with teeth "ready to bite" and a carpet covered with roses the color of "the blood that oozed from the butcher's parcels. . . ."Given this dire setup, what follows --- Cathy's father attacking her during the visit; sister and brother later embarking on an incestuous relationship --- isn't all that shocking. When Miss Gallagher hints that she is aware of the siblings' carryings-on and threatens blackmail, Cathy leads her into the woods and . . . well, that would be telling. Even an imperfect book doesn't deserve to have its plot given away.
A few relatively normal characters keep the novel grounded: There is the eccentric grandfather with whom the children live, their mother having long ago fled to the Continent and their father having eventually died in the sanatorium. There is Kate, the Irish maid of all work, the anti-Miss Gallagher, the good servant as opposed to the bad. And there is the Austen-esque figure of their wealthy neighbor, Mr. Bullivant, who woos Cathy in a discreet fashion, sends her lemons from his Italian villa, teaches her about painting --- and, most importantly, knows and likes her errant mother. (This mother-daughter relationship seems to possess Dunmore, as if she is trying to work out something in her own life.)
The turning point of the book arrives when Rob, unforgivably, runs off to Canada with, even more unforgivably, Kate: a double betrayal. This is also when A SPELL OF WINTER starts to find its center. The language becomes less melodramatic, more incisive. Dunmore is wonderful at establishing a sense of place; you smell what she smells, see what she sees. Left alone, Cathy and her grandfather grow close; one evening he talks about raising his daughter --- Cathy's mother --- almost from the moment of her birth: "Even when I was holding her she was wanting to crib herself round into something soft that wasn't there. The way a man's body is made, it's like a rack of ribs. It doesn't fit to a child."
Now events from the wider world begin to affect this hermetic and increasingly cash-poor household. It's 1914, and as World War I leeches boys from the surrounding villages, Cathy learns to plough, mend fences, live off the land: "I could skin a rabbit now as easily as I could undress myself." Rob returns from Canada, but there is uneasiness between them, and soon he, too, joins up. At last, Cathy's grandfather dies. A man known as "the wizard" --- a friend of the cook, the marvelously named Mrs. Blazer, who sells herbal remedies in the market square --- comes to the house and burns attar of roses to see the old man out... an unsparing and curiously gorgeous scene.
Out of curiosity, after I'd finished the book I read WITH YOUR CROOKED HEART, Dunmore's latest. Although some of the same themes surface --- particularly the absent mother --- and there is a continuing taste for the macabre, Dunmore doesn't overdo her effects or use more words than she has to. Her people, instead of having to fight their way out of encumbering gothic stereotypes, are fully themselves --- sympathetic despite addiction, brutality, dishonesty, pain --- from the start. And the suspense is terrific.
If Dunmore sounds like the sort of writer you'd like, don't begin with A SPELL OF WINTER. Begin with one or two of her later books ---TALKING TO THE DEAD or WITH YOUR CROOKED HEART --- and read this one only if you form an attachment and are inclined to look softly upon her, much the way we forgive the lesser efforts of our dearest friends.
Reviewed by Kathy Weissman on January 9, 2001