Helen Dunmore’s Zennor in Darkness proved the perfect tome to pick up over a relaxed and warm bank holiday weekend. I first read the novel some years ago, but did not remember much about it, save for D.H. Lawrence featuring as one of the protagonists, and the sweeping Cornish setting. First published in 1993, John le Carre calls this ‘a beautiful and inspired novel’, and the Sunday Telegraph deems it ‘highly original and beautifully written’.
Zennor in Darkness opens in May 1917, when war has come to haunt ‘the coastal village of Zennor; ships are being sunk by U-boats, strangers are treated with suspicion, and newspapers are full of spy stories.’ It is into this environment that D.H. Lawrence and his German wife, Frieda, move, seeking a cheaper existence away from the controversy which his writing has caused in London. Also resident in the village, and living with her widowed father, is a young woman named Clare Coyne. She is a young artist, whom Lawrence and Frieda soon befriend.
When Lawrence arrives in Cornwall, it is almost directly after the publication and scandal of his novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover. In Zennor, he is ‘growing vegetables to eke out his tiny income. He earns his living by his writing, and it has shrunk close to nothing since his novel was seized by the police in November 1915 and prosecuted for obscenity. The book is shameful, say reviewers and prosecution. It is a thing which creeps and crawls… He does not know when he will be able to publish another novel. But with a remote cottage rented at five pounds a year, and cheap rural living, he hopes that he and his wife may get through the war.’ Controversy follows the Lawrences wherever they go, however; local residents are highly suspicious of Frieda’s German accent, and the couples’ penchant for singing Hibernian lullabies to one another. ‘This brazen couple,’ writes Dunmore, ‘ignores the crossed, tight webs, the drystone walls, the small signals of kinship, the spider-fine apprehensions of those who’ve lived there for ever once they feel a fly strumming somewhere on their web.’
Dunmore’s descriptions throughout are highly sensual. At the outset of the novel, when Clare decides to swim with her cousins with nothing on, she writes: ‘Second in, she must be second out. And she wants the sea to herself for a minute, the noise and swell of it, her bare flesh rocking in salt water.’ The rural scenery, as well as the current crisis and its effects, are set with such grace. Dunmore is very understanding of the location against which the action of the novel plays out, as well as the wider political climate, and the links between the two. When Clare and Lawrence survey the sea, for instance, she writes: ‘It is wonderful to have your back to the land, to the whole of England: to have your back to the darkness of it, its frenzy of bureaucratic bloodshed, its cries in the night… To have your back to this madness which finds a reason for everything: a madness of telegrams, medical examinations and popular songs; a madness of girls making shells and ferocious sentimentality.’
Dunmore’s depictions of people, too, are vivid and memorable. When Clare meets Lawrence for the first time, for instance, she finds that ‘his beard is astonishing. It juts from his face, wiry and bright red, and then the sunlight catches it and it’s all the colours she’d never have thought human hair could be: threads of orange and purple like slim flames lapping at coals.’
Whilst the majority of the novel is told using the third person omniscient perspective, the use of diary entries written in Clare’s voice are effective. Using this technique, Dunmore shows a more tender side of her, and it is also, of course, far more revealing than she is able to be in her public life. Snippets of first person perspective, and thoughts of individual characters, have been woven throughout. Sometimes asides are given, or reflections between snatches of dialogue. Separate characters are focused upon in individual chapters, and we are thus able to see the rich tapestry of those who live within Zennor, some of whom are real historical figures, and others of which have been imagined by Dunmore.
Everything within Zennor in Darkness has been beautifully placed into what is a taut and tightly executed novel. Throughout, Dunmore’s writing is measured and careful; she is understanding of her characters, and never resorts to melodrama. Zennor in Darkness is a novel to really admire; it is slow, sensuous, incredibly human, and highly beautiful.