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.