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Zennor In Darkness

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Book Overview

It is May 1917: war overshadows the haunting beauty of spring in Zennor. As U-boats nose the Cornish coastline, the village is alive with talk of spies. It is a world of call-up and telegrams, secrets... This description may be from another edition of this product.

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View from the Sidelines

The title is less mysterious than it might seem. Zennor is a tiny town near St. Ives in Cornwall where D. H. Lawrence leased a secluded cottage in 1916 and 1917. The Darkness is of course the First World War, which claimed the young men of the county, brought German U-Boats to their shores, and set the suspicious villagers against Lawrence, his strange pacifist ways, and his German wife Frieda von Richthofen (a distant cousin of the celebrated Red Baron). Also straddling the gap between two worlds is Clare Coyne and her widowed father Francis, an impoverished younger son of minor Catholic aristocracy, whose wife, a former lady's maid, died of TB while Clare was still an infant, leaving her to be brought up mainly by her extended family in this Cornish town, people of good heart but a different class and religion from her father. But while Francis Coyne lives in isolation on dwindling investments, writing a book on local botany, Clare leads a full life among her relatives and friends, developing her talents as an artist, and eventually striking up a friendship with Lawrence himself. Zennor is a lovely place, with bracing cliff landscapes and sea air, beautifully evoked by Helen Dunmore. But the darkness is never far from their doors. Telegrams arrive with sickening frequency announcing yet another death. Men return wounded in invisible ways. Passions flare in brief encounters that only reinforce awareness of the destruction taking place just the other side of the Channel. ZENNOR IN DARKNESS ranks with Pat Barker's REGENERATION trilogy as a view of war from the sidelines, helpless but by no means unaffected. This is a remarkable achievement by any standard, but as a first [adult] novel it is simply astounding. I can certainly see similarities with her two more recent books that I have read: she will use the WW1 period again in A SPELL OF WINTER, and Clare's Cornish childhood is very similar to that of the heroine in TALKING TO THE DEAD; indeed the power of childhood memories and close familial connections is a powerful theme in all three books. But as opposed to the rather melodramatic plot constructs in those later novels, this one deals with a period that needs no additional drama; its story unfolds naturally, almost inevitably; and its combination of fact and fiction seems effortless. Clare is a beautiful character, and Dunmore's Lawrence shares that edgy charisma that made his thinly-veiled appearance in Aldous Huxley's POINT COUNTER POINT the highlight of that book also. I am eager to see what Dunmore makes of another real-life wartime setting, that of the siege of Leningrad, in her 2002 novel, THE SIEGE.
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