"YOU CAN'T LIVE on a piece of land without knowing there are layers of people who've lived there before you." So muses a character in Helen Dunmore's novel The Spell of Winter, encapsulating the central enigma of this tale. Abandoned at a young age by her mother and father, Dunmore's narrator, Kate, grows up on her family's farm, haunted by the loss of her parents yet not permitted to speak of it. Raised by servants and her domineering grandfather, she spends the first 20 years of her life in a deep freeze, one thawed through the course of this mesmerizing novel by her own secret passion.
Unfolding over a long winter sometime before World War I, the book quickly casts its spell: In the opening scene, Kate and her brother Rob pry details from their maid about a macabre scene the young woman witnessed in her childhood. The maid's grandmother would not allow her husband's corpse to be removed from the house, even after it began to fester. Eventually, a cadre of local men descended to wrench the woman from her grieving perch, and in the process, accidentally dislodged the body's arm: "We heard a terrible soft sound...like the leg being sucked off a cooked chicken, and there was Joseph's arm bouncing down the stairs to the floor below."
This gruesome image sets the tone for Dunmore's exploration of the rotten body politic of Kate's family. The villagers all know that Kate's father died in a sanitarium and that her mother absconded to Italy with another man. In response to their grandfather's oppressive denial, Rob and Kate form an illicit bond as children, one that flowers into a full-fledged affair in adulthood. In the hands of a lesser writer, this plot twist might feel cheap and tawdry, but Dunmore handles it with exquisite style, sensitivity, and even eroticism. So skillfully has she evoked Kate's burning desire to connect with her kin, that we understand their coupling as a desperate, last-ditch attempt to preserve the unity of family.
As World War I looms, their romance flourishes, defying the barren winter landscape. And, in the process, Dunmore's novel plumbs the mysteries of identity and sheds light on the darker seasons of our internal landscape.