"A Spell of Winter" by Helen Dunmore

In this Gothic wonder of a novel, madness, incest and even worse follow in the wake of a mother's ruthless desertion.

Published February 21, 2001 6:56PM (EST)

Helen Dunmore, the Orange Prize-winning author of "A Spell of Winter," doesn't draw you into her novel, she drops you there cold. You're not quite sure where the stealthy, creeping darkness came from, but before you know it, you've descended into an otherworldly, erotic madness. Yet Dunmore's world isn't especially foreign: The story plays out in a turn-of-the-century, middle-class English homestead, peopled with servants and visited by townsfolk. They throw parties, build snow caves, play games. The shadows, ghastly and gratifying and shivering with sensuality, come from deep within.

Cynthia Quinn abandoned this home years ago, and when we meet her relatives, they are already decaying in the everlasting aftermath of her desertion. She drove her husband to an asylum, her father to denounce her forever and her two children, Rob and Catherine, into each other's love-starved arms. This phantom matriarch gives birth to turmoil and then leaves it to deepen and fester and seethe. Dunmore treats her characters' despair carefully and with startling psychological acuteness; she beautifully captures paranoia, how it feels to wonder if people smell guilt on your skin and -- most powerfully -- how you can rationalize an act until you convince yourself it never even happened.

Catherine narrates the story in a steady, almost wary voice, and at times, her confidence serves as a comforting reprieve. She's cognizant of her fate: "Secrets can cross from one person to the other without words, and suddenly you find that you've always known them. If a child was born from those two people, I wonder if it would be born knowing all their secrets, somewhere within it. Perhaps that's why I was born with such heaviness inside me." Cursed with unruly black hair, Catherine bears an eerie resemblance to her mother. But unlike her mother, Catherine is immobile, caught in the past, "something we lugged about, as heavy as a sack of rotting apples." By liberating herself, Cynthia imprisoned everyone else, especially her young daughter who wears her face and channels her memory.

Those who pose as replacements for Cynthia or threaten Rob and Catherine's secret paradise must be eliminated, sometimes in sinister ways: Miss Gallagher, the fussy old woman who shakes with infatuation for Catherine, her one-time pupil; Kate, the strong, feisty, beloved housekeeper; and even Catherine herself, who in the end must leave her English country home behind. Dunmore's Gothic wonder of a novel transpires in its own little prison world, but when England engages in war and the foundations of Europe fracture, the reader is jerked out into a greater, darker humanity where desperation and pain are universal. With no one left to be buried or unearthed, Catherine can finally break free and travel to France, to see the one person who gave this life its dizzying pulse in the first place.

By Suzy Hansen

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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