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