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on 15 June 2000
A haunting evocation of young souls left to develop alone in a large house full of emotional and financial disintegration. A brother and sister's isolation and loneliness lends their love for each other a new and dangerous bent. Without guidance or boundaries they struggle with the moral and physical implications before one (perhaps) finds redemption and hope.
This novel confronts parental abandonment, mental illness, incest, love and the tragedy of war with the lightest and most effective touch. The natural world and a strongly developed host of supporting characters provide a strong framework for a deeply personal tale.
At times the insights into a young girl's soul (it is written in the first person)seem almost pornographic in their intimacy but they render this work compelling.
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on 15 June 2007
This is a dark, disturbing novel, but strangely haunting. I read it when it was first published, and re-read it more recently. It is my favourite Helen Dunmore, and certainly, in my opinion, her most poetic, the language sometimes so striking that I re-read whole chunks, savouring the unexpected use of words, descriptions that make me gasp with admiration. Phrases such as, 'Her voice poured like treacle over the polished floor,' and, 'The corridor seemed to have swallowed up our voices too,' are breathtaking, but it is the overall impression of the coldness of winter, Catherine's season, that permeates the whole story. 'This morning the ice on my basin of water is so thick I can not break it. The windows stare back at me, blind with frost.'

Helen Dunmore evokes all the senses to the full, so much so that you almost feel the scratchy roughness of Rob's jacket against your skin, and suffer the claustrophobic intensity of Miss Gallagher's interest in Catherine, the young narrator. You instinctively dislike Miss Gallagher, an impression underlined by the writing: 'Her bicycle was by the front steps. Upright, ugly and insistent.' And, 'The coat flopped around her, long and lean as a washed-out banana.'

Kate, the Irish maid, is the one warm gleam in the children's otherwise wintry lives, but apart from Kate they have only each other. The book, set around the first world war, is an exploration of their relationship and its development as they grow up. The story might have its darker aspects but I loved it. I would urge anyone interested in the beauty of the English language to read it and savour every word.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 1 September 2011
An arresting, sometimes disturbing and always beautifully-written tale of a brother and sister who, abandoned by their mother, and with a mentally-ill father, are left to the care of their reclusive grandfather, his housekeeper the beautiful and mysterious Kate, and a strange and creepy local woman, Eunice Gallagher. As Catherine and Rob become more and more isolated in their grandfather's old house, they also become closer, eventually beginning an incestuous affair that has profound consequences for everyone. Will Catherine manage to escape and build a new life with art-loving George Bullivant? Or will her relationship with Rob damage her for good? Dunmore keeps us guessing right until the end of the book.

The great beauty of Dunmore's language throughout the novel reminds us that she was a poet before becoming a novelist. Her descriptions - of landscape, houses, paintings, food, clothes - are quite superb. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Catherine is taken round George Bullivant's house and sees his paintings, and some of the later scenes where Catherine ends up working the land during World War I. Even when Dunmore is describing disturbing happenings and emotions, her prose is still beautiful. Her characters are compelling as well, particularly Catherine, an intelligent and attractive girl who cannot fit into conventional society, Catherine's strange, wolfish grandfather, Kate the Irish maid, and George Bullivant, with his love of art and Italy. Dunmore also makes us well aware of Rob's attractiveness, though it's clear that he's a rather dangerous man, who doesn't do his sister any good at all. If I could change anything about the book, I would have liked to have learnt a bit more about Catherine's grandfather's life, and about her parents and why they separated. But in a way, it was almost more intriguing to keep some mystery, leaving the reader to fill in some gaps.

A wonderful, poetic novel and an example of how prose can be almost as successful as a good painting in capturing atmosphere. One of Dummore's best.
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on 15 June 2002
The is a well contructed love story told in a graceful and captivating style. The author has been quite brave, yet obviously careful, in her portrayal of an intense sibling relationship turned too far inward to escape the youthful urges of sexuality. The individual's sense of seclusion during harsh and powerful winters is expertly conveyed. However, if your sense of morality is easily threatened, read something else; because, this is a complicated work that teases out taboos in a way in which the reader will never forget.
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on 11 January 2007
This author's novels win prizes for good reason. There's not a part of this novel that appears out of place. Each and every word fits beautifully into an intricately woven and sorrowfully haunting tale.

A brother and sister are left parentless at an early age. They are brought up in a very sheltered way by a troubled grandfather, and the housemaid (not much older than themselves), in a large and deteriorating country manor. Set around the time of the First World War, this duo are caught up in a period of social hierarchy with high societal moral values. As a result, they find out early on that they have to work together to keep family secrets deeply hidden in the past. Effectively isolated from those around them, they increasingly turn to one another for comfort and their relationship develops into something more...

Take the time to get involved as a reader, right from the very start, and you will be rewarded with an intensely involved story of discovering love and adulthood, learning right and wrong. At times disturbing, challenging the boundaries of sibling love, the simple naivety of the leading character and story-teller, Catherine, encourages an empathetic understanding and sympathy for her plight. Although dark and moving, a glimmer of sunshine and redemption can be found towards the end.
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on 17 November 2008
Helen Dunmore enjoys an almost subliminal skill in crafting a story that truly delivers heavyweight punches wrapped in a velvet glove and which, you suddenly become aware has gripped you unmercifully in its embrace.

Rob and Cathy are siblings alone in the world. To them it seems that their parents simply deserted them, their mother preferring a life without children and their father consigning himself to a sanatorium, leaving them in the care of an aging grandfather in his fading country house. With no knowledge of their family history and complete lack of parental attachment, Rob and Cathy construct a world that is entirely based on themselves and their love for each other. Into this world they freely admit Kate, a twenty nine year old loving nanny and their one true friend, and reluctantly Miss Gallagher, who continually forces her way in with an unreciprocated love for Cathy and silent dislike of Rob.

On the surface this is a story of children growing up and, with little external contact, constructing their own world of play and fantasy. They develop the skills and pursuits of children raised in a less-than-wealthy but nonetheless privileged country house setting, with a self-confidence to match, especially in Rob. And all the time they need no-one's company but their own.

But as the world outside moves inexorably towards the horrors of war, this small group of innocent individuals grows blindly into passions and emotions of such depth and consequence that their lives are in no less danger.

Dunmore's beautiful, entrancing style masks an ability to stop you dead in your tracks, whilst some passages rival the suspense-building capabilities of Edgar Allen Poe. Is it fifty pages too long? Probably, but you need a little pause for breath occasionally.
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on 29 November 2011
Well I have to hand it to Dunmore; she is not an author who will shy away from difficult or disturbing subjects. One of the main themes in this novel is incest between a brother and sister who grow up in a crumbling mansion with their Grandfather in the years preceding the First World War.

As if this wasn't disturbing enough the novel also explores illegal abortion, murder and mental illness. This isn't going to be a book for everyone.

The main strength of this novel however is not the subject matter but the writing. The prose is fluid and easy to read and I found myself clearly seeing the mansion in desperate need of repair and the surrounding countryside. The whole setting had a Gothic and claustrophobic feel about it and in terms of the setting, the book reminded me a little of Sarah Waters The Little Stranger. The characters were all well developed and I was glad that the main characters featured in the novel were not just limited to the brother and sister.

Unfortunately sometimes the plot moved into melodrama territory and even given the unusual circumstances I cannot believe that the siblings relationship would have entered into the territory that it did. I also feel its a shame that the incest plot line seems to overshadow all the other themes in the novel as without it more pages might have been given to the mystery of why the siblings were abandoned by their mother.
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This haunting and evocative novel was the first Orange Prize Winner and set a high standard for future hopefuls. Helen Dunmore creates a world which is at once understandable and yet totally different. Rob and Catherine live in virtual isolation in the crumbling old house belonging to their grandfather. It is gradually revealed to us that their mother has left and is living abroad, while their father, unable to cope without her, has been admitted to a sanitorium. We see events through the eyes of Cathy - a young girl who so resembles her mother that her grandfather can hardly bear to look at her, while their governess, the boy hating Miss Gallagher, harbours an obsessive and unhealthy love for her. Only Kate, the no nonsense Irish servant, brings some kind of stability to the children.

As Cathy and Rob grow older, the outside world intrudes. Cathy has a suitor, in the form of a rich neighbour; while Rob has the beautiful Livvy - as light as Cathy is dark. Yet, Rob and Cathy are thrown together too much, with too many secrets to bind them together. This is a novel of forbidden love, family secrets and how Cathy gradually becomes a woman and learns to understand what drove her mother away. This is a quiet and thought provoking read, which really packs a punch. Helen Dunmore has long been one of my favourite authors and I enjoyed revisiting this early novel.
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TOP 100 REVIEWERon 12 July 2008
This is a well balanced, interesting novel which is lyrically written and even quite gripping. Characters are well drawn and complex, and the plot held my attention from the start. It is narrated by Catherine, a girl whose parents have left - her mother run off, her father to a mental hospital - and is brought up by servants in a crumbling house at the turn of the 20th century.

This book does not shy away from some powerful and controversial topics - incest, abortion, mental illness and murder all feature strongly. However, these are covered in an intelligent way, lifted by the good writing and the relevance to plot, and although hard hitting is not gratuitous. However, anyone who finds it particularly distressing to read anything about these topics might want to avoid the book.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes literary fiction as an absorbing and well written novel. It well deserved to win the Orange prize, and I will certainly be looking out for more books by the author.
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on 24 November 2014
This is a beautifully written tale, almost like poetry in places. The story focuses on a brother and sister who are the victims of a dysfunctional family, set around the first World War. The descriptions of the country manor house, elegantly falling to bits around them, are wonderful. The 'spell of winter' is a neat metaphor for the heartbreak and loss that the two young children experience. Helen Dunmore really gets inside the young girl's head and we are invited to view events from her perspective. Terribly sad in parts, quite shocking in places, there is however a happy ending of sorts. Well worth reading!
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