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4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
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on 14 February 2009
This tender, moving, profound book really gets into the minds of young people growing up in the First World War, and the magic and sorrow of first love. It is very atmospheric and profound. The insular feel of a small remote Cornish village at that time, with its inevitable suspicion and mistrust of the unfamiliar and foreign, is very well captured. I have read it three times and got more from it each time. A truly beautiful and atmospheric book with great depth.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 6 September 2011
Helen Dunmore tends to alternate between contemporary and historical fiction. This, her first novel, is in the historical genre, mixing real events and people (the writer D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda, and their short stay at Zennor during World War I) with a completely fictional story, of Clare Coyne, daughter of a poor but aristocratic Catholic father and a working-class Cornish mother, and her love for her cousin John William, a working-class Cornish boy who longs to become a doctor, but becomes badly shell-shocked after terrible experiences at the Front. John William returns to his home at St Ives for a brief period of leave, and it is then that Clare realizes how strong her feelings are for him. But in wartime, no lovers are entirely safe...

This is a remarkably impressive first novel. Dunmore fits the Lawrences into her story very well, and brings them both vividly to life, with none of the awkwardness one often gets when writing about 'real' characters in novels (though Lawrence and Frieda both come across as slightly nicer than I think they may have been in real life; at least if Katherine Mansfield's account of their time in Cornwall is anything to go by). Clare Coyne is a most appealing heroine and Dunmore depicts her situation, caught between the cosy but sometimes prosaic life of her maternal relatives, and the academic abstractions of her father's life, very well. Her rapidly developing love for her cousin is also extremely convincing. The descriptions of Cornwall are beautiful (and, having been several times to that part of the world, I can safely say they are accurate). While there are the occasional lapses from the very high quality of much of this writing (I never quite believed in the scandal the villagers were trying to create about Clare and D.H. Lawrence, for example, and could have done with a little more information on how Clare's father Francis and Clare's mother got together) this is in many ways a deeply satisfying book.
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on 24 July 2003
Helen Dunmore's first novel may be overlooked by the more commercial success of "The Siege" and "Talking to the Dead" but it is an outstanding work in its own right.
Set during the outbreak of WW1 it mixes fact (D H Lawrence comes to Cornwall where he is accused of being a spy) with fiction (a young girl's brief love affair with her cousin and its aftermath) in a tangible and totally believable blend. From the outset these are not dim, dusty, historical stereotypes: these are real people, of flesh and bone, and you come to care for them. Dunmore is one of the few writers who can evoke characters from the past and make them as real as your next door neighbour or the girl down the street. It is this talent which has created a wonderful heart-piercing story. Her talent for constructing situations and places is also spot-on; you can almost smell the sea-salt and feel the spray on your face during beach scenes.
I am loathe to say anything more and ruin the book for you. So read it yourself and revel in it.
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on 10 May 2012
I found this book a little slow to start, ended up loving it and read it about 3 times.

The story has various threads, different writing styles and it all ends up being very poignant and interesting.

A great book and l would definitely recommend it
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on 23 February 2015
From the blurb on the back I was expecting this novel to be about DH Lawrence's time living in Zennor in Cornwall during the first world war. Actually, this turns out to be a secondary theme. The main character is Clare Coyne, a local girl, although she does meet Lawrence on occasions. The novel follows Clare and her family over the course of about a year. It is set against the background of the war, though the effect of post traumatic stress on soldiers is not explored as extensively - or effectively - as in Dunmore's more recent novel 'The Lie'. If you haven't read that, I'd recommend it above this work. However, I still enjoyed this book, above all for its superb depiction of place. Dunmore's sensitivity to the landscape that makes up the Penwith peninsula is remarkable, and rivals Hardy.
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on 30 April 2016
It took me longer than expected to finish it. Probably because such an atmospheric book needs your whole attention to be fully appreciated. When you're busy and you don't have long periods to devote to the book you lose your grasp on the story and have to find your way in again each time you get back to it. On the whole though I enjoyed it because the characters are wonderfully portrayed and ring true.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 22 April 2014
Having read Helen Dunmore's spare and brilliant novel "Lies" focused on a shell-shocked young Cornishman in the aftermath of World War 1, I was interested in comparing it with her début novel published twenty years earlier, "Zennor in Darkness". Set in 1917, this describes how the tentacles of war have reached into rural Cornwall, with teenage boys conscripted from remote farmhouses, and cottage windows darkened with blackout curtains to deflect the German U-boats venturing near the coast to prey on British supply ships.

Since the author is also a poet, it is perhaps not surprising that "Zennor in Darkness" has a touch of Under Milk Wood with its array of local characters. The two who emerge most sharply in the foreground are at least to some extent outsiders: young would-be artist Clare Coyne, whose genteel Catholic father stayed on in Zennor after his wife's premature death, and the author D.H.Lawrence, who hoped in vain to find a refuge in Cornwall from the public outrage over his attacks on the war, and his marriage to Frieda, a German who had abandoned her husband and children to be with him.

The present tense which seems to have annoyed some reviewers did not trouble me at all. I hardly noticed it, and think that in fact it creates an increased sense of immediacy, and awareness of what each character is observing and feeling. However, the novel is clearly less taut and polished than "Lies". Several scenes, such as the opening chapter with three girls sunbathing on the beach is too rambling, with a confusion at times as to who is talking or who the identity of the main character - I thought at first it was Clare's cousin Hannah. There also seemed to be a bewildering excess of names to cope with at first. The writing sometimes seems over-intense.

This is a slow burning novel, a stream of impressions and thoughts. It conveys as far as I can tell a powerful and evocative sense of the Cornish landscape and the ambiance of a tightknit, closed community. Dunmore is also good at portraying relationships between people, their shifting emotions, misunderstandings and mutual criticism despite strong empathy, even love. Although in the main uneventful, requiring the reader to take time and savour the originality and beauty of Dunmore's prose, the novel shifts into a higher gear for the final third to reach a convincing conclusion.
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on 13 September 2012
This story was a real page turner. The way Helen Dunmore moved the story about in time was a fascinating device that kept me guessing. I was really engaged by the presentation of DH Lawrence and Freida. A thoroughly enjoyable read from this gifted and inventive writer.
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on 12 February 2011
This is another masterly work by Helen Dunmore (The Siege etc) Set in WWI it brings the writer DH Lawrence into the narrative. It is a rites of passage of three girls in the village/town of the title.It brings in first love,loss,ambition and small town suspicion and bigotry. Highly recommended.
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on 22 February 2010
Deft depiction of an insular, remote community as seen through the eyes of characters who are questioning their roles in an ultimately permanently changed landscape. The backdrop of WWI only heightens the paranoia and xenophobia in Zennor. The main characters also serve as a poignant illustration of all that is lost to the Great War: their vibrancy and closeness to this coastal, rustic way of life acts as a startling counterpoint to its implied horrors.
I found the inclusion of Lawrence and his wife added depth to this overall picture too, but it never dominated the novel. Clare carries the main focus throughout, and leaves us with a sense of the future, and hope, despite all the tragedy. And I particularly liked the depiction of Clare's father who seems to undergo the most moving awakening towards the end.
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