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A Spell of Winter: A Novel Paperback – January 9, 2001

3.5 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Unsettling love and stifled horror create and then destroy the claustrophobic world of this lush, literary gothic set in turn-of-the-century England. Catherine and Rob Allen, siblings two years apart, grow up in a world of shameful secrets. Their mother creates a public outcry, abandoning her family for a bohemian life on the Continent. Their father, whose mental state always has been slightly precarious, is committed to an asylum in the country. The children are sealed off with their grandfather in a crumbling country estate accompanied by their sturdy and well-loved servant, Kate, and the predatory tutor, Miss Gallagher. In true gothic fashion, terror, violence and eroticism collect beneath every dark surface. Against this strange and secretive backdrop, Cathy and Rob develop a closeness so fierce that it eventually threatens to smother them both. Kate makes the first crack in their hermetically sealed world, which World War I eventually bursts wide open. With Kate's departure for Canada and Rob's for the front, destitute times at home force Cathy into self-reliance. It's only after she's redeemed by hardship that she's given a second chance to be redeemed by love. Though the setting is classic gothic, the novel is peculiarly modern with its precise, unforgiving depictions of childhood and madness, its dark sensuality and surprising, artful use of metaphor. The intensity and darkness of the world Dunmore creates teeters between gripping and overwrought; some may find the story heavy-handed. Still, Dunmore's keen, close writing is deserving of Britain's prestigious Orange Prize, which the novel won when it was first published in the U.K. in 1995, and most will enjoy the book as a finely crafted, if disturbing, literary page-turner. (Feb.)Forecast: Dunmore's stock has been steadily rising with the publication in the U.S. of her last three novels (Your Blue-Eyed Boy; Talking to the Dead; With Your Crooked Heart); demand for this earlier, career-establishing work should be strong.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

In the years before World War I, Cathy, the narrator, and her brother grow up on their grandfather's impoverished English estate. Their mother abandoned them when they were small, and their father dies after being institutionalized. Except for the ministrations of the maid, Kate, and the interference of the repulsive governess, they are left on their own. It seems inevitable when their closeness takes an unnatural and destructive turn. A wealthy neighbor is refurbishing a nearby estate and offers Cathy glimpses of a larger world, but she cannot bring herself to respond. In the meantime, there are threats to her hermetic existence--the governess' intrusions become intolerable; first Kate and her brother, Rob, decide to leave. And finally the war comes, taking most of the neighboring men with it, so that Cathy is left with her ailing grandfather to scratch out an existence on the farm. It's only when the war ends and she is alone that she is ready to break away. With a handful of characters and rich, ripe prose, Dunmore creates a compelling tale of obsession. Mary Ellen Quinn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Grove Press; Reprint edition (January 9, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0802138764
  • ISBN-13: 978-0802138767
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 0.9 x 8.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #105,433 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Siblings Rob and Catherine live in the big old house with their cold grandfather after their mother abandoned them and their father left to live in a mental institution. Left alone to wonder about the family secrets that seem to be hiding everywhere, they turn to each other for the love and affection they can't find elsewhere.
This is an absolutely haunting book. The writing was just about as beautiful and powerful as any I've encountered. Dunmore created such a strong sense of place that was so enveloping that I had to take breaks from reading just to warm up and bring myself back to my life, because I felt like if I spent too much time there in the world of the book, I'd be trapped and never make it out. I'm excited to read more by this author.
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Format: Hardcover
Rarely, does one come across a gothic novel written by a modern novelist that is not totally insipid. Helen Dunmore's "A Spell of Winter" is literature and it is beautiful. The writing strikes a fine poetic balance - profoundly evocative without being overly dense or distracting from the story she unwinds. You are, quite simply, there. You smell, taste and feel everything. And, the scenery...ah, the scenes, the odd, strange and staggeringly beautiful scenes you find yourself experiencing (Dunmore is a master of place) - ones you won't forget after you close the book. It is all very confusing and exciting and exquistedly sad. The characters, particularly the female ones, are well-realized and deeply complex (just as people truly are in a life fully-lived). Dunmore has obviously, like many of us, been long haunted by Cathy and Heathcliff. Admittedly, I had a few problems with the novel's conclusion. Toward the end, I found many of the actions of the characters became totally, well, uncharacteristic and seemed manipulated to satisfy to the novel's plot, or lack thereof, toward the ending. I found this highly disappointing since I was so involved with the characters by that point. Much of the novel's trembling intensity seems to just peter out. Still, there did exist that "trembling intensity" and finding that anywhere in a novel is a gift not lightly dismissed.
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Format: Paperback
"I saw an arm fall off a man once." So begins Helen Dunmore's beautiful novel, "A Spell of Winter." The words above are spoken by Kate, an Irish maid in a pre-World War I English household that consists of eight year old Catherine, her ten year old brother, Rob, their tutor and grandfather. After making her startling announcement, Kate then relates a rather gruesome story that happened in the Dublin house of her grandmother many years ago, when Kate, herself, was a child.
Although the above is certainly an engrossing way to open a novel, it really doen't have anything to do with the story that follows, except for introducing Catherine Allen, who, as a grown woman, will be our narrator through his dark and Gothic tale.
As a passionate, independent woman who harbors far more than her share of both secrets and pain, Catherine Allen looks much as we would expect her to look, possessing dark, unruly hair and dark eyes that unnerve even the most strong-willed.
Catherine's sharer-of-secrets and co-conspirtor is her brother, Rob, who seems, even at his young age, to be something of a dandy and, perhaps, more affected by the strange goings-on at the decaying estate the two call home than is Catherine.
If Rob and Cathy aren't your typical children, even in a drafy English country manor house, it might have something to do with the fact that their parents are not your typical parents. Their mother (who was perhaps the wisest of them all, though definitely not the most kind-hearted), bolted from the strangeness of it all to live a bohemian life in the south of France. Their father made his escape through insanity and died (under suspicious circumstances) in an asylum ironicaly called, the Sancturary.
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Format: Paperback
The blurb at the back of Helen Dunmore's Orange Prize winning novel, "A Spell of Winter" suggested a haunting gothic-styled thriller built around forbidden passions and family secrets. For a good two-thirds of the novel, Dunmore kept up the suspense with a litter of teases and dark hints which unfortunately remained unresolved and a mystery even at the end. You could have forgiven her deliberate sense of obscurity and vagueness had she gone for a less open ended denouement, but the last third of the novel was a major let down for me. I felt almost cheated after a such a promising start. Sure, Dunmore writes exquisitely. Her prose is smooth and fluent and a joy to read. Pity she let the suspense and momentum peter out midway. In my humble opinion, not up to the standards I was expecting from a prize winner. But Dunmore is an excellent writer. Perhaps the next book I read of hers will be more fulfulling.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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