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A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore
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A Spell of Winter (original 1995; edition 2007)

by Helen Dunmore (Author)

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingConversations / Mentions
4841921,248 (3.59)2 / 181
Member:john257hopper
Title:A Spell of Winter
Authors:Helen Dunmore (Author)
Info:Penguin (2007), 321 pages
Collections:Your library, Owned, To read, eBooks
Rating:
Tags:eBook, fiction, historical fiction, WWI, 2017, Kindle Store, TBR

Work details

A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore (1995)

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Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
I generally enjoy controversial books, and I heard that this historical fiction included the always controversial plot point of incest. The short version of my review is: it’s amazing how boring a book about incest and WWI can actually be. For the longer version, read on.

The book is told non-linearly in what appears to be an attempt to build suspense. The constant jumping with very few reveals for quite some time, though, just led to my own frustration.

I was similarly frustrated by the fact that Cathy’s childish interpretation of her father’s mental illness never progresses. She never moves from a child’s understanding to an adult’s understanding. This lack of progress gave a similar stagnant feeling to the book.

Of course, what the book is best-known for is the incest between Cathy and Rob. I found the scenes of incest neither shocking nor eliciting of any emotion. There are scenes where Cathy and Rob discuss how “unfair” it is that they cannot have children and society will judge them. But then again there are scenes that imply that Rob took advantage of Cathy. Well, which is it? It’s not that I demand no gray areas, but the existence of gray areas in such a topic would best be supported by a main character with insight. Cathy remains childlike throughout the book. Indeed, I think the characterization of Cathy is what holds the whole book back. Because the book is Cathy’s perspective, this lack in her characterization impacts the whole thing. What could be either a horrifying or a thought-provoking book instead ends up being simply meh. A lot of time is spent saying essentially nothing.

That said, I did enjoy how the author elicits the setting. I truly felt as if I was there in that cold and often starving rural England. I felt as if I could feel the cold in my bones. That beauty of setting is something that many writers struggle with.

Overall, this book read as gray and dull to me as the early 20th century English countryside it is set in. Readers with a vested interest in all varieties of WWI historic fiction and those who enjoy a main character with a childlike inability to provide insight are the most likely to enjoy this book. Those looking for a shocking, horrifying, or thought-provoking read should look elsewhere.

Check out my full review. (Link will be live February 22, 2016).

*Initial Thoughts*
Maybe 2 stars? Readable and quick but confusing and somehow not shocking in spite of scandalous content. Full review to come. ( )
1 vote gaialover | Feb 12, 2016 |
This was a good read, one I was always eager to get back to, but upon completion I wasn't sure what I was supposed to make of it. It's a 20th century tale in the gothic mode, with an isolated home falling on hard times; insanity (mostly hinted at--no madwoman chained in the attic here); incest; unwanted babies; an innocent-seeming heroine (is she an unreliable narrator?); an overbearing older woman; a mysterious missing mother; a rich man who could, maybe, make everything fine; murder and secrets.....so many secrets. The writing is superb, the setting and tone DO make you think of [Jane Eyre] or [Rebecca]. And yet, something is lacking. There's no BIG secret, no great reveal, no climax, really. I can't say I was disappointed by this, as nothing in the story misled me into expecting a startling revelation...but I did expect SOMETHING. The ending just fizzled, I thought. 3 stars for the marvelous sensual experience....Dunmore made me see, hear, smell, touch... everything. ( )
  laytonwoman3rd | Nov 22, 2015 |
I love Dunmore's prose. Catherine and her brother Rob are being raised by their inattentive grandfather and a handful of servants and hired assistants on an English estate in the early part of the 20th century. Their mother has abandoned them and their father has died, so the siblings' bond is viscous and ineluctable. Blinded by their privilege, resentful and spoiled, but also neglected and left to their own impulsive play, they cleave joyfully to one another until events necessarily shake their world. Scandal in the community, the war in Europe, and their own adolescent disregard for the feelings of others -- all combine to divert their story from its peaceful path. Dunmore writes in the first person -- Catherine is our unreliable but compelling narrator -- and she lingers in what seems a random manner over scenes, characters, moments in time. The novel moves at a rather leisurely pace but not without intrigue and intensity. This is not a cozy victorian novel. Rather, the author explores a dark side of privileged English country life, starting with the unexplained absence of the children's mother. The gothic effect makes for a very good read and I admire Dunmore's unconventional approach to such common themes as love, loss, family, and the terrible power of secrets. ( )
4 vote EBT1002 | Nov 4, 2015 |
This fin de siècle, first person, novel, is at its Austenesque heart a story of decay, hope and incestuous love.
Cathy lives in a large run down country house with her Grandfather, known locally as ‘the man from nowhere’. As Cathy looks back on past events in her life we encounter past inhabitants of the house; her brother Rob, the Irish housekeeper Kate, the mysterious Eileen and numerous servants employed from the local village.
Cathy and Rob’s mother, who was a baby when she arrived with Cathy’s grandfather at the country house, left when Cathy and Rob were very young. Their father has also ‘abandoned’ them due to his mental illness and is being treated at a sanatorium. Their grandfather has retreated into his study from which he very rarely emerges and so Rob and Cathy are largely left to their own devices apart from the able assistance and love of their housekeeper and friend, Kate.
Secrets and lies are cemented into the very brickwork and foundation of the house and its real and metaphysical decay begins to expose those two fragile elements to householders and visitors alike. These two sides of the same coin seep and bleed through the novel and their exposure is being hurried by the likes of Ms Eunice Gallagher, Cathy and Rob’s former tutor and governess.
This 1996 winner of The Orange Prize for Fiction is like the curate’s egg, excellent in parts. Helen Dunmore’s characters are wonderfully written. As you read through the novel it feels like each line is creating the skin and bone and organs of each character while each chapter is pumping blood through their perfectly, forming bodies. By the end of A Spell of Winter, one feels that one has not only read about the characters but has actually met them.
At times the novel does read like it is part of the Austen oeuvre. Being a lover of all things Austen, this is not a bad thing and may have been the author’s intention. One cannot read of the character Mr George Bullivant without thinking of the first line of Pride and Prejudice: ‘It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife’. Mr Bullivant reminded me Mr Charles Bingley from the same novel, good natured, well mannered, kind and wealthy. His name is well chosen as it means, the good, faithful man. In fact Mr Bullivant is given one of the best lines of dialogue, ‘Thinking of people when they’re not there, it’s one of life’s great pleasures, isn’t it’.
The first line of the prologue, ‘I saw an arm fall off a man once’, sets out a major theme within the novel, decay. Decay of not only the grandfather’s house but of his mind and that of his sons. Decay in inhibitions and ultimately the morals of the two main characters, Cathy and her brother Rob.
The book’s title, A Spell of Winter, Cathy’s favourite time of the year, implies decay. And it is in that winter that Cathy can hide, physically and mentally, within its long hours of darkness.
There are times when the dialogue does not do justice to the rest of the novel. At times it reads like something from a sub romantic Barbara Cartland novel as this exchange between Mr Bullivant and Cathy attests to;
‘You’re cold,’ he said, noticing my shiver, ‘We’ll go into the house.’
‘No, I’m not cold. I like it here.’
‘You like the snow, don’t you? It suits you.’
‘Yes’
‘I always think of you outside, in the woods or in the garden.’ said Mr Bullivant.
‘Do you?’
‘Yes, why do you sound so surprised?’
The novel’s incestuous story line could be considered a brave and bold move on the author’s part or simply a contrivance to generate publicity through tabloid moral outrage. Personally, I believe the former reason. Rightly or wrongly I wondered if this was the kind of book I should be reading and enjoying but I also had the same thoughts when reading Nabakov’s Lolita.
Do I recommend this book? Yes I do. Did it deserve to win to win the 1996 Orange Prize for Fiction? Too early to say as I have yet to read four of the six books that were nominated. But of the two books that I have read from the shortlist, The Spell of Winter and Julia Blackburn's The Book of Colour, Helen Dunmore's is my favourite.

No’ of pages – 313
Profanity – none
Sex scenes – 1 (there are also some mild sexual references)
Genre – Drama/Romance ( )
  Kitscot | Jul 10, 2013 |
Cathy lives in a large country house that is fading with her brother Rob and grandfather. We quickly learn that her mother has left and her father died in a sanatorium. The novel is mostly about the sibling love of Cathy and Rob and how this relationship becomes incestuous. Grandfather is a distant, vague figure, until later in the novel Their maid Kate is lively and brings fun to the dreary house. Rob has a close friendship with a local girl and there is some connection between Cathy and the rich neighbour, who is older. Helen Dunmore's writing is deep and lyrical, she describes the scents of the countryside vividly and the pain the main character, Cathy, feels at different times. A difficult and dramatic novel about families, set in the 1910s. ( )
  Tifi | Jun 18, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 19 (next | show all)
Dunmore's novel is composed of long, darkly rhapsodic passages, many of which are memorably haunting. . . But as if eager to make her narrator a modern update of Emily Brontë's Cathy, Dunmore burdens her familiar story with a string of salacious, increasingly overwritten adventures straight out of the pulp-fiction files.
 
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“I saw an arm fall off a man once," said Kate.
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It is winter in the house.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0802138764, Paperback)

The inaugural winner of England's prestigious Orange Prize, A Spell of Winter is a compelling turn-of-the-century tale of innocence corrupted by secrecy, and the grace of second chances. Cathy and her brother, Rob, have forged a passionate refuge against the terror of loneliness and family secrets, but their sibling love becomes fraught with danger. As Catherine fights free of her dark present and haunting past, the spell of winter that has held her in its grasp begins to break. "Dunmore touches everything: skin, bone, frozen earth." -- Los Angeles Times Book Review "[A] literary page-turner." -- Publishers Weekly (starred review) "[A] modern Gothic." -- Library Journal

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:06:05 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

"Catherine and her brother, Rob, do not know why they have been abandoned by their parents. In the house of their grandfather, 'the man from nowhere, ' they forge a passionate refuge for themselves against the terror of family secrets, and while the world outside moves to the brink of war, their sibling love becomes fraught with dangers."--Jacket.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 4 descriptions

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