Literary reviews by Tim Love.
Warning: Rather than reviews, these are often notes in preparation for reviews that were never finished, or pleas for help with understanding pieces. See Litref Reviews - a rationale for details.

Saturday, 21 May 2016

"Zennor in Darkness" by Helen Dunmore (Penguin, 1994)

Chapter 1 tells us about Clare, Peggy and Hannah. Information isn't dumped on us; it's spread through the chapter. England's at war, which changes people's attitude to sex and death - "She wonders what a U-boat looks like when it rises above the water. It must be very like a basking shark, she thinks. She has seen basking sharks from the cliffs, lying offshore in warm weather, seeming to do nothing and said to wish no harm, though they can turn a boat over if they are frightened. But the U-boat strikes, then it comes up black-shouldered and streaming with water and lies there watching to be sure of its kill, while men thresh in the oily water, and nobody comes. Next day the waves are full of tins and oil and smashed wood" (p.13).

In chapter 2 we meet "Lawrence" - "He is growing vegetables to eke out his tiny income. He earns his living by his writing, and it has shrunk close to nothing since his novel was seized by the police in November 1915 and prosecuted for obscenity". He's a pacifist, and Frieda's German, so the locals are suspicious.

Point-of-view (PoV) is fluid, changing from person to person rapidly, and varying in the depth of stream-of-consciousness.

  • On p.179 for example there's a paragraph that begins with Clare's PoV, 3rd-person privileged, then becomes 1st person

    Clare turns her face into the pillow and grips it. Hannah hinted at something in Sam's letter; something which had happened to Sam, and changed him. There must be things I don't know and can't begin to imagine
  • Chapter 5 begins with Clare's PoV. She meets a man, who's talking at the start of this extract -

    '... the cottage doesn't belong with the farm. We rent it from Captain Short, down in St Ives. I daresay you know him, too.' A little sideways look.
    Oh. Yes. Now I know who you are. Or think I do. You're the man they have all been talking about.
    'Did you ever hear the likes of it! Captain Short's got Germans staying up at Higher Tregerthen. They've taken his cottage

    There's a 2 page flashback (highly unrealistic of course), then a return to the main time-line, Clare returning in the 3rd person -

    Yes, Clare knows who he is now. But what can she say to him?
  • Chapter 22 begins with Clare's PoV, 3rd person, when she was 5. After a few pages it becomes omniscient for a page. Then there's "Nan sews. Her thoughts are like stitches, each one tiny and precise and not much in itself, but making up the strong seam" followed by Nan's introspection, then "Fifteen years later Nan sews and thinks of Clare", the introspection continuing. Then suddenly we seeing things from Clare's 1st person PoV.

Throughout there are little bursts of lyricism or imagery - "each gravestone lapped with new grass", p.40; "he pours a long white tongue of milk into Clare's jug", p.92; etc. Chapters sometimes start with a lyrical, scene-setting description -

  • "Day after day it doesn't rain. Mid-May, blazing hot, with blackthorn fully out and bluebells bowed over, hanging their sappy stems in the heat. The air smells tauntingly of honey and salt", Ch 4
  • "Zennor church door creaks and opens. Outside, the unusual May heat simmers. It is noon and quiet. Dogs lie in the dust. Butterflies skim gravestones and the pointing finger of shadow on the sundial to the left of the church porch is sharply distinct", Ch 7

Chapters can close lyrically, with sudden PoV switches.

  • At the end of Chapter 2, we're in the heads of Lawrence and Frieda. Neither sees the patrol boat -
    The boat rocks while its crew look and listen. Their eyes rake the rocks. Nothing. But there must be something. It is four o'clock. The men out in the fields straighten as they see the girl reach the gate with a cloth-covered basket and a jug of cold tea. She will hand it over the gate to them, because she does not want the dung on her skirts. Meanwhile the postman toils seven miles uphill from St Ives, with the Berliner Tageblatt in his saddlebag. p.23
  • This ends a chapter
    How can he know what she talks about when he's not there? Futile even to want to know. But he does. He imagines the girls leaning together, confiding. He pulls back sharply from the thought, flinching at his own prurience. Again he thinks of the lists. Of Hannah's spread legs. Of Sam with the sun on his back. How Clare feels his look on her. She glances at him and half smiles, but does not stop what she is doing p.39

The singer Eliane and the Rector are presented in stream-of-consciousness passages though their appearances are brief. Sometimes a character tells us everything - e.g. "She's left me nothing to love here, only my Clare. I can see the beauty everywhere, and it pierces me, but I am never at home. It is a beauty. It is a beauty which disturbs me without ever offering the comfort of familiarity or possession. I live with my back turned to everything I know, and no matter how long I live here it will be the same. I would find it easier if the place were less beautiful" (Clare's father on p.249). But we don't know what goes on in John William's head ...

The ending rather drags, and Lawrence's role in the plot isn't convincing, nor is the betrayal of him by Clare's father.

Other reviews

  • Elaine Feinstein (Zennor In Darkness is a first novel, and far from flawless; Helen Dunmore moves too readily from one person's consciousness to another, and at first the present tense seems awkward, even pretentious)
  • josbook (I really struggled with this book, something which actually surprised me as this is a typical book I would like. I cannot deny that the writing is excellent, and it is a book which needs to be savoured as the passages are highly descriptive of the area of Cornwall, as is the flora and fauna. Dunmore has also handled the experiences and descriptions of war well and I felt moved by what was written and for that the book has its place. But for me it was the characters which let the book down)
  • Goodreads

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