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on 10 July 2013
This fin de siècle, first person, novel, is at its Austenesque heart a story of decay, hope and incestuous love.
Cathy lives in a large run down country house with her Grandfather, known locally as `the man from nowhere'. As Cathy looks back on past events in her life we encounter past inhabitants of the house; her brother Rob, the Irish housekeeper Kate, the mysterious Eileen and numerous servants employed from the local village.
Cathy and Rob's mother, who was a baby when she arrived with Cathy's grandfather at the country house, left when Cathy and Rob were very young. Their father has also `abandoned' them due to his mental illness and is being treated at a sanatorium. Their grandfather has retreated into his study from which he very rarely emerges and so Rob and Cathy are largely left to their own devices apart from the able assistance and love of their housekeeper and friend, Kate.
Secrets and lies are cemented into the very brickwork and foundation of the house and its real and metaphysical decay begins to expose those two fragile elements to householders and visitors alike. These two sides of the same coin seep and bleed through the novel and their exposure is being hurried by the likes of Ms Eunice Gallagher, Cathy and Rob's former tutor and governess.
This 1996 winner of The Orange Prize for Fiction is like the curate's egg, excellent in parts. Helen Dunmore's characters are wonderfully written. As you read through the novel it feels like each line is creating the skin and bone and organs of each character while each chapter is pumping blood through their perfectly, forming bodies. By the end of A Spell of Winter, one feels that one has not only read about the characters but has actually met them.
At times the novel does read like it is part of the Austen oeuvre. Being a lover of all things Austen, this is not a bad thing and may have been the author's intention. One cannot read of the character Mr George Bullivant without thinking of the first line of Pride and Prejudice: `It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife'. Mr Bullivant reminded me Mr Charles Bingley from the same novel, good natured, well mannered, kind and wealthy. His name is well chosen as it means, the good, faithful man. In fact Mr Bullivant is given one of the best lines of dialogue, `Thinking of people when they're not there, it's one of life's great pleasures, isn't it'.
The first line of the prologue, `I saw an arm fall off a man once', sets out a major theme within the novel, decay. Decay of not only the grandfather's house but of his mind and that of his sons. Decay in inhibitions and ultimately the morals of the two main characters, Cathy and her brother Rob.
The book's title, A Spell of Winter, Cathy's favourite time of the year, implies decay. And it is in that winter that Cathy can hide, physically and mentally, within its long hours of darkness.
There are times when the dialogue does not do justice to the rest of the novel. At times it reads like something from a sub romantic Barbara Cartland novel as this exchange between Mr Bullivant and Cathy attests to;
`You're cold,' he said, noticing my shiver, `We'll go into the house.'
`No, I'm not cold. I like it here.'
`You like the snow, don't you? It suits you.'
`I always think of you outside, in the woods or in the garden.' said Mr Bullivant.
`Do you?'
`Yes, why do you sound so surprised?'
The novel's incestuous story line could be considered a brave and bold move on the author's part or simply a contrivance to generate publicity through tabloid moral outrage. Personally, I believe the former reason. Rightly or wrongly I wondered if this was the kind of book I should be reading and enjoying but I also had the same thoughts when reading Nabakov's Lolita.
Do I recommend this book? Yes I do. Did it deserve to win to win the 1996 Orange Prize for Fiction? Too early to say as I have yet to read four of the six books that were nominated. But of the two books that I have read from the shortlist, The Spell of Winter and Julia Blackburn's The Book of Colour, Helen Dunmore's is my favourite.

No' of pages - 313
Profanity - none
Sex scenes - 1 (there are also some mild sexual references)
Genre - Drama/Romance
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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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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 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 20 November 2017
She writes beautifully (though the dialogue is sometimes a bit weak), but there's just not enough story here. I liked some of the characters - I thought the Irish servant, Kate, was very well drawn, but George Bullivant was a little too good to be true. The book got better towards the end, when Cathy was more or less by herself in the house. The ending, in Brittany, was particularly good. The author takes great care with her minor characters.

The subject matter was pretty strong stuff. Incest has been around for a bit (The Cement Garden, A Song of Stone, Cersei and Jamie in a Game of Thrones) but I've never seen such a detailed description of an abortion. Probably less fun than it sounds. But did she kill Miss Gallagher or didn't she? That's the most unsatisfactory part of the book, and Miss Gallagher the weakest character.

Cathy is not a sympathetic character - unusual in a book written by a woman.

The quality of the writing is captivating, and I shall read some more of Miss Dunmore's books.
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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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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 9 July 2017
Teenagers Rob and Catherine have been raised almost isolated from the outside world, living in their grandfather’s estate. Their mother is living abroad, their father is in a sanitorium. We aren’t sure of the time period that this book is set in until the involving story lets world events invade the very private gothic world of a house and estate that is returning to nature. This is a seductively gripping book in a lyrical poetic way. A book to re-read and enjoy and an author to revisit.
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on 17 June 2017
This early novel from the poet novelist Helen Dunmore has all the elements of a gothic romance. A decaying house, slowly making its way back to nature becoming the habitation of owls ,an incestuous love, a murdered governess set in an icy cold winter. Dunmore evokes an atmosphere of desolation in which the babes in the wood abandoned by their mother become involved in darker things. The novel shimmers with metaphor and beautiful language.
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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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