"I saw an arm fall off a man once." So begins Helen Dunmore's beautiful novel, "A Spell of Winter." The words above are spoken by Kate, an Irish maid in a pre-World War I English household that consists of eight year old Catherine, her ten year old brother, Rob, their tutor and grandfather. After making her startling announcement, Kate then relates a rather gruesome story that happened in the Dublin house of her grandmother many years ago, when Kate, herself, was a child.
Although the above is certainly an engrossing way to open a novel, it really doen't have anything to do with the story that follows, except for introducing Catherine Allen, who, as a grown woman, will be our narrator through his dark and Gothic tale.
As a passionate, independent woman who harbors far more than her share of both secrets and pain, Catherine Allen looks much as we would expect her to look, possessing dark, unruly hair and dark eyes that unnerve even the most strong-willed.
Catherine's sharer-of-secrets and co-conspirtor is her brother, Rob, who seems, even at his young age, to be something of a dandy and, perhaps, more affected by the strange goings-on at the decaying estate the two call home than is Catherine.
If Rob and Cathy aren't your typical children, even in a drafy English country manor house, it might have something to do with the fact that their parents are not your typical parents. Their mother (who was perhaps the wisest of them all, though definitely not the most kind-hearted), bolted from the strangeness of it all to live a bohemian life in the south of France. Their father made his escape through insanity and died (under suspicious circumstances) in an asylum ironicaly called, the Sancturary.
If Rob and Cathy have apparently learned much from their parents, though and they harbor many dark secrets of their own. For most of us, these secrets heat up the storyline while giving us the shivers. Although I found this book both haunting and eerie, I think some readers might find the storyline a bit too melodramatic and over-the-top.
While I thought Catherine was a good narrator, her often heartless approach to things that would have broken my heart made me dislike her and, as a consequence, I lost quite a bit of sympathy for her. Dunmore's writing is so life-like and so riveting, that we can't help but be pulled in when Catherine describes scenes that, at their mildest, could only be described as "harrowing."
The very best thing about this novel though, is not the characters or the plot, it is Dunmore's beautiful prose and her wonderful sense of place. She certainly has a way with description; I could have enjoyed this book for the gorgeous prose alone, though I doubt that that would be enough to please most readers.
While the book does have a tendency to slip into melodrama at times, as far as the plot is concerned, it is really still believable. By the time we reach the last third of the novel, most of the characters are "gone," and only Catherine remains. I didn't care for this part of the novel quite as much as the preceding pages. While the first two-thirds of the book had a dusty, claustrophobic feel, just perfect for the subject matter, the last third seemed more open, more expansive...and far less moody.
The close of the novel is something of a twist, and a modern one at that. Personally, I didn't care for it but I know other readers may feel differently. It wasn't bad, I simply didn't find it at all believable.
If you liked "Wuthering Heights" and the characters of Catherine and Heathcliff, you will probably enjoy "A Spell of Winter." It has the same moody, claustrophobic feel (at least through most of the story) and the same unrelenting darkness. If you simply enjoy a good, old-fashioned tale, complete with lush settings written in beautiful and lyrical prose, you would also probably enjoy this book. If, however, you require stark realism and total believability, better skip this one.