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 Galla