I read Helen Dunmore’s novel With Your Crooked Heart many years ago and I’ve been a fan ever since. Dunmore’s prose is like poetry, every sentence a perfect balance between beauty and truth. Winner of the 1996 Orange Prize, A Spell of Winter is the fourth novel I’ve read by her, and I have also read her collection of short stories, Ice Cream.
A Spell of Winter concerns the lives of Cathy and Rob, siblings who live in a crumbling manor house in England. Their guardian is their maternal grandfather, “the man from nowhere”, and through Cathy’s eyes he is seen as stern and unsympathetic.
When A Spell of Winter begins Rob is nine and Cathy, our narrator, is seven. They are on their way, with Miss Gallagher, to visit their father in the sanatorium. It’s a traumatic visit – and also marks the last time the children will see their father alive.
The children’s lives are isolated and insular. Cathy remarks:
I look at the house, still and breathless in the frost. I have got what I wanted. A spell of winter hangs over it, and everyone has gone.
Perhaps it is isolation, perhaps it is abandonment, but eventually Cathy and Rob cross the line. Their story reminds me of another pair of British siblings who become lovers: Cathy and Christopher, protagonists of Carolyn Slaughter’s magnificent novel Relations (also published as The Story of the Weasel.) With a huge house to creep around in and no one to pay attention to them except Kate, their trusted servant, Cathy and Rob fall into a strange spell of their own.
A Spell of Winter has many of the gothic hallmarks: the gloomy dwelling, a sense of mystery, a distressed heroine. As long as Cathy and Rob are isolated, they manage to sustain their relationship. But like winter, it can’t last. Eventually, the real world seeps in in ways both expected and unexpected.
I loved A Spell of Winter. It’s not a ‘love’ story in the way Relations is. I wasn’t rooting for Cathy and Rob. I was rooting for Cathy. She is abandoned many times during her life, but her resilient nature, whether through necessity or tenacity, keeps her going. The language is beautiful. And the story despite its dark subject matter, is brimming with the promise of spring.