Helen Dunmore: Zennor In Darkness


Zennor in Darkness recreates the few months in 1917 when D.H. Lawrence and his wife Frieda took a cottage in a remote Cornish village. They needed to get away from London, where Lawrence’s anti-war views and his scandalous books had created constant trouble for them, and they needed to live cheaply. With German u-boats lurking by the coast to down incoming merchant ships, and news day by day of the deaths of local boys in a war that already seems lost, the little community is hostile to the stranger and his German wife:

This brazen couple ignores the crossed, tight webs, the drystone walls, the small signals of kinship, the spider-fine apprehensions of those who’ve lived there forever….(17)

But the young artist Clare Coyne opens to them like a flower, charmed by Lawrence’s warmth and quickness:

Not many people ever look directly into another person’s eyes. They are frightened of what they may find there. There are so many shuttered, timid eyes. (54)

It’s a very attractive, unusual picture of Lawrence and a well-informed understanding of Frieda, the outsider who has thrown everything away to be with him. Maybe Helen Dunmore is trying to do a bit too much by weaving this in with Clare’s relationship with her shell-shocked cousin John William, briefly home from the war; both relationships could have carried a novel on their own. The physical background of the wild, ancient Cornish landscape and the human landscape of close-knit families whose traditions are being battered by the changing world is beautifully created, though in this first novel she hadn’t yet developed the sure hand of later works like Exposure: https://gertloveday.wordpress.com/2016/05/04/helen-dunmore-exposure

Helen Dunmore, who died  too young in 2017, went on to write 15 adult novels as well as short story collections, young adult and children’s books and 12 poetry collections.  Very much worth your time.



17 thoughts on “Helen Dunmore: Zennor In Darkness

  1. Oddly enough, I’ve never read Helen Dunmore, but a copy of this book caught my eye while I was browsing in one the local charity shops the other day. Maybe I should drop back and get it…

  2. I tried the first volume in her children’s series about mermaids, Inigo but, rarely for me, I completely gave up on it: it was slow, all in the present tense (very wearing) and the early teen protagonists seemed more cliché than rounded character. Her last book, Birdcage Walk, which is set in Bristol where I’ve spent more than half my life, attracted me more but I’ve yet to pick it up. I have, however, read a handful of her poems in collections and found them most effective, even moving.

    1. Yes, I like her poetry too. What you say about her children’s books is interesting, because her adult books are really engrossing and her characters very well-drawn.

  3. I’ve looked at Dunmore more than once. Is it just me but are the covers (not just this one ) well… a little low rent for the subject matter?
    I won’t read this as I avoid books about real people (most of the time). I’ll read a fiction book about a real person and the next thing you know I’m down the rabbit hole reading all these non fiction books about the ‘characters’

    1. I see what you mean about this one, but I do like the cover of Exposure. Reading this one took me back to a biography of Frieda that I’d read a long time ago – she really was a very tedious woman, and DH himself isn’t as attractive a figure as he is here.

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