Helen Dunmore: Zennor in Darkness (1993) Literature and War Readalong January 2012

Helen Dunmore’s first novel Zennor in Darkness is set on the Cornish coast in 1917. The sound of war can be heard from afar. The first young men return from France, some of them are missing limbs, others are shell-shocked like Claire Coyne’s cousin John William. Although the war is present on every page, in the suspicions of the people, the fear that all the boys will be drafted, the noise the wind blows over from France, the scarcity of money and food, this is a novel of dreamlike beauty. Dunmore conveys the soft light of the Cornish coast, the beauty of the lovely landscape, the slow pace of life. This softness is mirrored in the way she changes the point of views, blurring the edges, softening the transitions, so that it feels as if one person’s consciousness and interior monologue, was flowing gently into that of another character. Reading it made me dreamy and I felt as if I was watching a water-color come to life. I read this book very slowly. I could have finished it in a few evenings but I put it aside frequently to make it last.

Zennor in Darkness interweaves the fictional story of Claire Coyne, and her cousin John William with the story of D.H.Lawrence and his wife. Claire lives alone with her father. Her mother who died while she was still very little was from Cornwall, while her father is an outsider, just like Lawrence. He comes from a rich Londoner family and was always seen as an intruder. Claire’s maternal grandparents, her aunts, uncles and cousins live close by. The children are a tight-knit community since they were little kids. They are so close that, although it seems logical for us, nobody suspects Claire and John William to be lovers.

The war has taken its toll, hundreds of thousands are dead and a lack in officers makes it possible for someone like John William who isn’t noble, to become an officer. He returns from France for a brief visit before he will join a training camp where he will stay a few months before being sent back to France.

Before his return Claire has befriended D.H. Lawrence. She is fascinated by him and even more so by his attractive German wife, Frieda. Not everyone is happy about their stay in Zennor. Germans are suspected to be spies and people would like to see them gone. Lawrence and his wife are happy in Cornwall. Their dream of a community of like-minded people has been shattered after Katherine Mansfield and her husband have left but still they love Cornwall and their simple life. Lawrence works in the garden, befriends the villagers. It’s not as easy for Frieda but she likes it as well. To the Lawrences Cornwall means more than just a place to stay, it is a refuge, a shelter and to watch their dream being crushed is painful.

Lawrence discovers that Claire is talented at drawing and encourages her to pursue a career. She introduces him to John William and Lawrence feels, more so than Claire, that John William hides something. One evening, when the two men walk alone in the balmy Cornish night, John William lets himself go in front of Lawrence, unable to hide the signs of shell-shock any longer.

Zennor in Darkness is a very beautiful novel and if anything it made me want to read more of Helen Dunmore. And it also made me want to return to D.H. Lawrence whose books I have abandoned for too long. I’ve always liked D.H.Lawrence, his novels, short stories, essays and letters and found that she captured him and his relationship with his wife very well. Frieda was a von Richthofen. A cousin of the famous Red Baron. Abandoning her marriage, her children and her privileges must have cost her a lot. I was always fascinated by this free spirit. The end of the book moved me. I knew the part related to the Lawrences, still it made me angry, while the fictitious story of Claire and John Williams made me sad.

What I found astonishing is the combination of beauty and horror. The descriptions of the Cornish coast, its air, light, flora and fauna alternate with passages like this one.

In Flanders the struggle for the Passchendaele Ridge continues. The poppy-blowing fields are ploughed by German and English guns, and sown with a litter of lost equipment, a seeding of blood and bone. Soon it will be autumn there too, and heavy northern rains will fall. Men will be listed missing, presumed drowned – a new classification for the lists in the newspaper. They are presumed drowned in the mud in which they live and often die. The men who came ‘right away to Blighty’ with John William will return to Flanders with their new commissions soon. Their training lasts only three months, and then they are wanted back at the Front. Hammond will die on a mission described to him by a senior officer as ‘rather a tricky bit of patrol-work’. His body will not be found. Simcox, a dozen feet to the left of him, will survive.

Ultimately however Zennor in Darkness is a novel about the difficulty to know another person. Either because you see them as strangers, or because they are too close for you and you lose all perspective. Like in real life, in many instances a stranger understands another character better than his own family, while at the same time, the community projects fear on the outsider.

In any case this was an excellent start to the Literature and War Readalong 2012.

Other reviews

Danielle (A Work in Progress)

Lizzy (Lizzy’s Literary Life)

Sarah (A Rat in the Book Pile)

Zennor in Darkness is also my first contribution to the War Through the Generations Challenge hosted by Anna and Serena.


Zennor in Darkness was the first book in the Literature and War Readalong 2012. The next one will be Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. Discussion starts on Monday February 27, 2012.

32 thoughts on “Helen Dunmore: Zennor in Darkness (1993) Literature and War Readalong January 2012

  1. a beautiful book about war…how lovely is that. I really love your description on the book, like painting comes to life. I haven’t found this kinda book since The Square Persimmon.

    beautiful review, Caroline. This post reminds me that I need to visit the library to check that Japanese book in this readalong

    • Thanks, Nov. Now that you mention it, The Square Persimmon put me in the same dreamy state like this book. It has a floating quality that I liked a lot. Still whenever she mentioned the war it was well done and the abusrdity was captured very well.
      I hope you can find Ibuse’s novel.

  2. Pingback: Zennor in Darkness – Helen Dunmore « Lizzy’s Literary Life

  3. I’m so sad that I missed reading this one with you. It sounds beautiful. I haven’t read any D.H. Lawrence yet, but now I really want to. I need to check out the library for the other books for this year.

    • It’s too bad you couldn’t join. I really liked it for so many reasons. I still have so many unread D.H.Lawrence novels and need to read them soon. I’m sure he is on your list. This is my second Helen Dunmore and although they are very different (the other one was The Siege) both were astonishingly good. I have many other of her novels here and am really happy about that.
      I hope you find some of the other books on the list, it would be great to have you join. A Long Long Way should be very good as well.

  4. Good choice, Caroline. I haven’t read anything that reveals the paranoias that prevail in times of war quite so well as this.

    • Thanks Lizzy and for joining. Yes, the paranoia is well captured. Such a lot of things are well captured actually, I’m really glad I read it. It’s lovely and complex and lyrical.

  5. I only read one Helen Dunmore although I’m not sure why because I was very impressed with her! This one sounds wonderful although you write so well I wonder if it’s the review that is wonderful or the book! :–) But I’m guessing both! :–)

    • This is so nice of you. Thanks. 🙂 But I can assure you, the book is wonderful. Like you I waited a long time until I finally read another one of her books although I liked the first.

  6. That last quote is marvellous. It captures the randomness of war (one man a few feet to the left of another survives). Kevin from Canada reviewed a book, Betrayal, by this author last year and wasn’t crazy about it. This one sounds better.

    • From everything I’ve read so far, Betrayal seems to be one of her weakest novels. It’s a sequel to The Siege and as such already a failure. The Siege didn’t need a sequel.
      The way she wrote about the war worked extremely well, she approached it in such a different way from what we normally see.

    • Anna, I think you would like it. Yes, it’s amazing, I thought so too, to be able to write a beautuful story and stay true to the horror. Have you read The Siege? An amazing book as well.

  7. A lovely review and I agree about the beauty of the landscape. I love Cornwall and I enjoy books that capture the feeling of being there.

  8. I really enjoyed this as well–the descriptions were beautiful–even the few war scenes and I’m glad you shared an excerpt–I meant to, but then my post got a little too long. I also liked the writing and the ethereal quality to it–the moving into and out of consciousness from character to character. It seemed to fit not only the sort of story, but the period, too. Maybe because it was the beginning of the modern period for literature and Lawrence was a character–it leant the story a nice feeling. I just fell into the way she told the story and wasn’t surprised when I discovered that she had also published poetry. I have only read one DH Lawrence novel a long time ago and not one of his major or longer books, and now feel he is sadly neglected (by me). Maybe this year I can manage something. I read Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter–also a long time ago and will happily read more by her. The only niggling thing about the book was the uncertainty of who the story was really about–the Lawrences or Clare, but maybe I was trying to read too much into it? The stories were so interweaved maybe it really didn’t matter. Anyway, this is one I think I could happily reread even though it was quite sad. Looking forward to reading Barry now, too!

    • It’s interesting, I never asked myself the question. I thought it was about Cornwall and the war more than about the people. Ethereal is such a good description. Why did I not think of that word, yes, that’s how it was written.
      And in this book she is still far more of a poet. In The Siege she is a novelist. I’m looking forwad to read more of her.
      And the Barry as well. I think it must be very good too.

      • I think when I read the blurb describing the story and the mentioning of DH Lawrence I had an image in my mind, but the story wasn’t just about him. You know how it goes when you have an idea how the story will go but then it veers in a slightly different direction–not in a bad way, but different from expected. You’re right, though, Cornwall really does become a character–I loved the lyrical descriptions of place and the rhythms of the sea that are reflected sometimes in the actions of the characters. There was a lot to like about this book and I could easily read it again and come away with even more than I did on first reading it.

        • I see, that has an influence. I knew he wasn’t center-stage but I have forgoten where I read that.
          I can imagine that I will read this again. I liked it a lot and it is quite complex, despite the floating feeling. She tackles a lot.

    • I’m very nterested in her books now that I have read two that were so different. I think Betrayal isn’t a good one and her children’s books seem not all equally good but her adult novels sound mostly interesting.

  9. Beautiful review, Caroline! Probably my most favourite review of yours 🙂 I loved these lines in the last paragraph – “Either because you see them as strangers, or because they are too close for you and you lose all perspective. Like in real life, in many instances a stranger understands another character better than his own family, while at the same time, the community projects fear on the outsider.” I didn’t know that D.H.Lawrence’s wife was from a German royal family. They must have found it tough during the First World War. I also loved this description – “This softness is mirrored in the way she changes the point of views, blurring the edges, softening the transitions, so that it feels as if one person’s consciousness and interior monologue, was flowing gently into that of another character. Reading it made me dreamy and I felt as if I was watching a water-color come to life.” – so beautiful! This seems to be a very different ‘war’ novel. I will add it to my ‘To be read’ list. Thanks for this beautiful review.

    • Thank you so much, Vishy. It’s a beautiful book, like Danielle write in her comment, ethereal. I knew that Frieda was from aristocratic background but had forgotten about the connection to the Red Baron. It must have been extremely difficult. But everything was. she abandoned her children for Lawrence. I read a collection of his letters and they led such a fascinating life. I think they moved to Italy later.
      It’s a very different war novel that’s for sure. War is in the background but everywhere at the same time.

  10. Surprise – hated it! Sorry, I respect your opinion and can see how it would appeal to many. Not the type of reader I represent, however.

    Boring. Not outstanding writing – few memorable lines. I am a good reader so when I have to back up and reread passages to figure out what the hell is going on, it’s frustrating. Some will say that is creative writing. I say it’s poor writing. The book did not flow for me. It was tedious reading with little payoff. Here are some specific thoughts:

    1. I disliked the shifting from first person to third and the shifting from one characters thoughts to another with no break or warning. Did you notice that at one point she used *s to break the narrative and at another part she used spacing, but only in those two places in the book? That is either sloppy editing or confusion.
    2. The suicide of JH was not set up well and not believable.
    3. Clare is pregnant by his child – how predictable!
    4. Francis decides to keep the suicide a secret except to tell Clare in some bizarre attempt to bond with her. Give me a break!
    5. Why structure your novel around DH Lawrence and then give him little to do?
    6. When does it get to the u-boat scene?
    7. There’s a lot of smelling in this book. It should have some scratch and sniff pages.
    8. What was up with the flashback to Clare at age 5 and the Francis diviner story?
    9. The sex scene did not fit the book. It was jarring.

    On the plus side, I liked Clare. The scene when she first visits the Lawrence’s was intimate and flowed well.

    Apparently the British have no problems with cousins marrying. We Americans are a bit uptight about that.

    I had no idea that a majority of the British hated the war. This seemed exaggerated.

    I’m glad I read it. You can always get something out of a novel. Like confirmation that women cannot write good war novels. Not that this is a war novel anyway.

    • I read Sarah’s review a week ago and she had the same reservations about the shifting consciousness. I hadn’t even been aware of it (I was on page 120). It felt so natural to me. It was flowing but that does obviously not appeal to everyone. *s I don’t know what that means? I didn’t see this. I think the suicide was believable, as believable as her father not getting that she was pregnant by him and not by Lawrence, the signs were there, only nobody was able to read them. I’m not sure about cousins marrying and whether it is a problem or not. I think by that tme, 1917, most Brtitish people were against the war.
      It’s obvious that when you don’t like the tone of a book that you will find many flaws. Thanks for joining and suffering through the book and cheer up… The next one has been written by a man.

      • Thank you for not being too offended by my harshness. Our relationship is such that I know I can be honest with you. I do not regret reading it and will now move on to the next. I do enjoy the readalongs! It did cause me to do some research on Lawrence and I found the book was admirably accurate except for the likelihood that he had a possible thing for William Henry Hocking, not a local girl.

        I was referring to the fact that only in Chapter 7 does she use asterisks to break scenes. That is bizarre and could be a possible signal to the Germans.

        So you agree that the suicide and Francis’ reaction to the pregnacy were equally unbelievable? Thanks.

        • I could do withouth the emphasis of differences imagined or real between women and men when it comes to writing- other than that I have no problem with your harshness. It didn’t spoil my reading experinece. I’m pretty sure there were no asterisks in my book.
          What I meant is that the suicide and the pregnancy are equally beievable or unbelievable, depending on the ppoint of view. I thought they were sudden but not unbelievable.

  11. I just wanted to let you know that we’ve linked to your review/discussion at War Through the Generations and that a snippet of your review will post on the main page on Feb. 7

  12. Pingback: Best Books 2012 « Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

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