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.

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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.

Literature and War Readalong January 30 2012: Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore

Two or three years ago I read Helen Dunmore’s The Siege a painfully realistic and harrowing account on the siege of Leningrad. This was such a stunning novel, one of the best WWII novels I have ever read, accurate, moving, descriptive and captivating despite the bleak topic. When I discovered that she had written a novel on WWI, Zennor in Darkness, I didn’t hesitate and put it on this year’s readalong list right away. Helen Dunmore hasn’t only written novels, but short stories, children’s books and poetry as well. I think her wonderful prose shows that.

The story is set in a Cornish coastal village in 1917 and combines fact with fiction. D.H. Lawrence and his wife have indeed stayed there but the story is invented. The core theme seems similar to Return of the Soldier and deals with shell shock. But it is also a story of artists and writers. I have a weakness for books about artists and love Cornwall as a setting.

Here are the first sentences

One faint shriek. Then another. Three girls fling themselves over the top of the last dune and skid down warm flanks of sand. Marram grass slashes their ankles and sand kicks up behind Clare and Peggy, into Hannah’s eyes. She is the heaviest and the last.

Have you read Helen Dunmore?

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The discussion starts on Monday, 30 January 2012.

Further information on the Literature and War Readalong 2012, including all the book blurbs, can be found here.

War Through the Generations 2012 Reading Challenge – The Great War

This is the fourth year in a row that Anna and Serena host the War Through the Generations Challenge. Since this year is dedicated to WWI I chose to join them. I have quite a few books on my piles that I would like to read. I’m not sure how many I will read but I aim for 5.

Here are the rules

Books can take place before, during, or after the war, so long as the conflicts that led to the war or the war itself are important to the story. Books from other challenges count so long as they meet the above criteria.

Dip: Read 1-3 books in any genre with WWI as a primary or secondary theme.

Wade: Read 4-10 books in any genre with WWI as a primary or secondary theme.

Swim: Read 11 or more books in any genre with WWI as a primary or secondary theme.

5 books means I sign up for Wade. I may or may not read more but I’m pretty sure I’ll stay on this level.

Three of the books chosen are the first three titles of my Literature and War Readalong 2012. If you want to read along, please see the page for details.

Zennor In Darkness by Helen Dunmore

A Long Long Way by Sebastian Barry

To the Slaughterhouse by Jean Giono

The other books that I will read for the challenge only are

Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. It’s a children’s book and I’m very interested to see how someone writes about war for children.

Fly Away Peter by David Malouf. This is a suggestion from Kevin (The War Movie Buff). It’s a very short novel by an Australian author which seems interesting. I’ve watched a lot of Australian WWI movies, it’s about time to read an Australian WWI book.

Here are a few additional suggestions as my favourite war novels are all WWI novels:

Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Fornt. Probably the most famous one.

Pat Barker’s Regeneration TrilogyRegeneration –  The Eye in the DoorThe Ghost Road.

Jane Urquhart’s The Stone Carvers

Sebastian Faulk’s Birdsong 

Jennifer Johnston’s How Many Miles to Babylon? (here is my review).

If you would like to sign up, more details on the challenge can be found here.

Literature and War Readalong 2012

People have been announcing their challenges and events for 2012 for a while now so it was about time to let you see the list for next year’s Literature and War Readalong.

It was not easy to compile this list as the books needed to fulfill different criteria one of which was length. I didn’t want to include too many books over 300 pages. The only novel over 500 pages will make up for its length by being very readable.

The other criterion was the country. Like last year, I wanted to include books from as many different countries as possible. I know it looks as if there were more British books than anything else which is true, still I managed to include books from 8 different countries.

I will also join Anna and Serena for the War Through the Generations Challenge that is dedicated to WWI this year. My introductory post is due later this week. The first three novels in the readalong will also count for their challenge.

I have been asked whether it is possible to join but read something different. Since strictly speaking a readalong implies that people read and discuss the same book, it’s difficult but as I’m starting a Literature and War Project I thought of a good solution that will serve anyone who wants to join –  myself as well as I may be in the mood to read more than one novel focusing on war. The idea would be that anyone can join during the last week of the month and either participate in the readalong or review any other war themed book that will then be added to the project page. The objective of the page is to cover many different countries, wars, themes and even genres. For the War Through the Generations Challenge I will for example read a children’s book and maybe a crime novel set in the trenches. Next year I would also like to read a Sci-Fi novel like Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War that has been suggested by Max from Pechorin’s Journal. And finally I would like to read more non-fiction.

This year’s readalong will not always take place on Fridays but alternate between Monday and Friday depending on whether the Friday is during the last week of the month or not.

January, Monday  30

Helen Dunmore Zennor in Darkness , 320 p., England (1993), WWI

Spring, 1917 and war haunts the Cornish coastal village of Zennor: ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy-fever. Into this turmoil come DH Lawrence and his German wife Frieda, hoping to escape the war-fever that grips London. They befriend Clare Coyne, a young artist, struggling to console her beloved cousin John William who is on leave from the trenches and suffering from shell shock. Yet the dark tide of gossip and innuendo means that Zennor is neither a place of recovery nor of escape …

February, Monday 27

Sebastian Barry: A Long Long Way , 295 p.,  Ireland (2005), WWI

I discovered the book thanks to a comment from Danielle (A Work in Progress)

One of the most vivid and realised characters of recent fiction, Willie Dunne is the innocent hero of Sebastian Barry’s highly acclaimed novel. Leaving Dublin to fight for the Allied cause as a member of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, he finds himself caught between the war playing out on foreign fields and that festering at home, waiting to erupt with the Easter Rising. Profoundly moving, intimate and epic, A Long Long Waycharts and evokes a terrible coming of age, one too often written out of history.

March, Friday 30

Jean Giono:  Le grand troupeauTo the Slaughterhouse 224 p., France (1931), WWI

Conscription reaches into the hills as the First World War come to a small Provençal community one blazing August. Giono’s fiercly realistic novel contrasts the wholesale destruction of men, land and animals at the front with the moral disintegration of the lonely and anxious people left behind. Yet not all is despair. The novel ends with a message  of hope.

April, Monday 30

Helen Humphreys: Coventry,172 p., England (2008), WWII

Another book discovered thanks to Danielle (here)

On the night of the most devastating German raid on Coventry, two women traverse the city and transform their hearts. Harriet, widowed during WWI, is “”firewatching”” on the cathedral roof when first the factories and then the church itself are set ablaze. In the ensuing chaos she helps a young man, who reminds her of the husband she has lost, find his way back home where he left his mother.

May, Monday 28th

Nigel Balchin: Darkness Falls From The Air, 208 p., England (1942), WWII

I owe the discovery of Balchin to Guy (His Futile Preoccupations) who reviewed two of his books here and  here.

With ostentatious lack of concern, Bill Sarratt, his wife and her lover spend the war wining and dining expensively, occasionally sauntering out into the Blitz with cheerful remarks about the shattered night-life of London’s West End. But beneath the false insouciance lies the real strain of a war that has firmly wrapped them all in its embrace. Wit may crackle at the same pace as buildings burn, but personal tragedy lurks appallingly close at hand.

June, Friday 29

Len Deighton:  Bomber, 532 p., England (1970), WWII

This book is a suggestion from Kevin (The War Movie Buff). It is by far the longest on the list but it should be a very quick read.

The classic novel of the Second World War that relates in devastating detail the 24-hour story of an allied bombing raid.

Bomber is a novel war. There are no victors, no vanquished. There are simply those who remain alive, and those who die.Bomber follows the progress of an Allied air raid through a period of twenty-four hours in the summer of 1943. It portrays all the participants in a terrifying drama, both in the air and on the ground, in Britain and in Germany.In its documentary style, it is unique. In its emotional power it is overwhelming.Len Deighton has been equally acclaimed as a novelist and as an historian. In Bomber he has combined both talents to produce a masterpiece.


July, Monday 30

Masuji Ibuse: Black Rain – Kuroi Ame, 304 p., Japan (1969), WWII

I saw the book mentioned on Rise’s blog (in lieu of a field guide) where is was mentioned by Gary (The Parrish Lantern)

Black Rain is centered around the story of a young woman who was caught in the radioactive “black rain” that fell after the bombing of Hiroshima. lbuse bases his tale on real-life diaries and interviews with victims of the holocaust; the result is a book that is free from sentimentality yet manages to reveal the magnitude of the human suffering caused by the atom bomb. The life of Yasuko, on whom the black rain fell, is changed forever by periodic bouts of radiation sickness and the suspicion that her future children, too, may be affected.

lbuse tempers the horror of his subject with the gentle humor for which he is famous. His sensitivity to the complex web of emotions in a traditional community torn asunder by this historical event has made Black Rain one of the most acclaimed treatments of the Hiroshima story.


August, Friday 31

Aaron Applefeld: The Story of a Life – Sippur chajim, 208 p., Israel (1999), WWII

Aharon Appelfeld was the child of middle-class Jewish parents living in Romania at the outbreak of World War II. He witnessed the murder of his mother, lost his father, endured the ghetto and a two-month forced march to a camp, before he escaped. Living off the land in the forests of Ukraine for two years before making the long journey south to Italy and eventually Israel and freedom, Appelfeld finally found a home in which he could make a life for himself. Acclaimed writer Appelfeld’s extraordinary and painful memoir of his childhood and youth is a compelling account of a boy coming of age in a hostile world.


September, Friday 28

Richard Bausch: Peace, 171 p., US (2008), WWII

This was a suggestion from Sandra Rouse in a comment on one of this year’s readalong posts. 

It’s Italy, near Cassino. The terrible winter of 1944. A dismal icy rain falls, unabated, for days. Three American soldiers set out on the gruelling ascent of a perilous Italian mountainside in the murky closing days of the Second World War. Haunted by their sergeant’s cold-blooded murder of a young girl, and with only an old man of uncertain loyalties as their guide, they truge on in a state of barely suppressed terror and confusion. With snipers lying in wait for them, the men are confronted by agonizing moral choices…Taut and propulsive – Peace is a feat of economy, compression, and imagination, a tough and unmistakably contemporary meditation on the corrosiveness of violence, the human cost of war, and the redemptive power of mercy.

October, Monday 29

Maria Angels Anglada The Auschwitz Violin – El violí d’Auschwitz, 128 p., Spain (1994), WWII

In the winter of 1991, at a concert in Krakow, an older woman with a marvelously pitched violin meets a fellow musician who is instantly captivated by her instrument. When he asks her how she obtained it, she reveals the remarkable story behind its origin.

Written with lyrical simplicity and haunting beauty—and interspersed with chilling, actual Nazi documentation—The Auschwitz Violin is more than just a novel: It is a testament to the strength of the human spirit and the power of beauty, art, and hope to triumph over the darkest adversity.


November, Friday 30

Gert Ledig The Stalin Front  –  Die Stalinorgel , 198 p., Germany (1955), WWII

1942, at the Eastern Front. Soldiers crouch in horrible holes in the ground, mingling with corpses. Tunneled beneath a radio mast, German soldiers await the order to blow themselves up. Russian tanks, struggling to break through enemy lines, bog down in a swamp, while a German runner, bearing messages from headquarters to the front, scrambles desperately from shelter to shelter as he tries to avoid getting caught in the action. Through it all, Russian artillery—the crude but devastatingly effective multiple rocket launcher known to the Germans as the Stalin Organ and to the Russians as Katyusha—rains death upon the struggling troops.

December, Friday 28

Michael Herr: Dispatches, 262 p., US (1977) Vietnam

This novel has been suggested by at least three people. Kevin (The War Movie Buff) and Max (Pechorin’s Journal)

If you’ve seen the movies Apocalypse Now and Platoon, in whose scripts Michael Herr had a hand, you have a pretty good idea of Herr’s take on Vietnam: a hallucinatory mess, the confluence of John Wayne and LSD.Dispatches reports remarkable front-line encounters with an acid-dazed infantryman who can’t wait to get back into the field and add Viet Cong kills to his long list (“I just can’t hack it back in the World”, he says); with a helicopter door gunner who fires indiscriminately into crowds of civilians; with daredevil photojournalist Sean Flynn, son of Errol, who disappeared somewhere inside Cambodia. Although Herr has admitted that parts of his book are fictional, this is meaty, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Vietnam.

I hope that many of you will feel tempted by the one or the other title on the list and am looking forward to great discussions. The books are all very different in tone, style and themes. As always there are a some I can hardly wait to read.

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How does the readalong work?

This is just a quick info for those who are new to blogging and /or the readalong.

I will review the book on a set date during the last week of the month. If you choose to read along you can either participate in the discussion in the comments page or post a review on your blog. I will add all the links to the reviews at the bottom of my posts.

The books are usually announced with some additional information or a short introduction at the beginning of the month.

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This post will be copied into the Literature and War Redalong 2012 page so you can find it again at any time.