I’ve read a number of Helen Dunmore’s works.   I liked Your Blue Eyed Boy and With Your Crooked Heart, I didn’t enjoy the short story collection Love of Fat Men at all and I thought The Siege was brilliant  in depicting the events of war on the civilian population during the siege of Stalingrad.  Perversely so successful was The Siege in portraying the pain of that nightmare scenario that I find myself completely unable to pick up its sequel, The Betrayal.

Zennor in Darkness is Dunmore’s debut novel which won the McKitterick Prize (for best debut by an author over 35) in 1994.  In it she “once again” (because that’s how it feels to me reading the novels in reverse sequence of publication) explores the effects of war on a civilian population.   This time she transports us back to Cornwall in 1917, to the mid-point of WWI, and she explores this using a very different style to The Siege.  In that novel she stripped back her language to accord with the needs and losses of her characters.  The language in Zennor in Darkness by contrast is lyrical.  The beauty of the Cornish landscape and the life in this coastal community are examined in poetic and metaphoric detail.

He points at the small lump of sea-pinks stirring in the sea-breeze at the edge of the cliff.

How can you look at that without wanting to draw it as if it’s alive?  See how long it is!  Think how the roots must grip down deep into the turf, to keep it here through the gales.  And it has a litle frail flower bobbing right on the edge of the cliff.  See how the stem gives way to the breeze.  I should think it’ud lay itself down flat before the gales; but it would spring up again, as soon as the sun shone.  Don’t you admire it?  Isn’t there something courageous about it?  Look how fine it is, all the time stirring in the wind so it shan’t get knocked to pieces.

The theme of courage is explored in its many manifestations:  the courage of a community facing down the realities of the war being fought across the sea in France, which they experience through the sounds of the guns travelling across the Channel and its insatiable appetite for their young men.  The courage also of the author D H Lawrence, not fit for military duty but also outspokenly opposed to this war.  In a precarious position, married to a German woman, seeking refuge in an isolated cottage in Zennor

The setting in 1917 is excellent. Like the men in trenches, the country is bogged down in a seemingly unending war effort with no certainty of victory.  Life is getting harder from day to day.  Food is becoming scarce,  thanks mainly to the German U-boots, patrolling the Cornish coast, sinking the merchant fleet at will.    Parents who obtained exemption from the military for their older sons are beginning to understand that their younger ones are no longer safe. The educated understand how they have failed the younger generation:

Oxford’s empty now.  All the young men are in France, buried or still breathing, turning up their faces to the sun to feel its warmth.  Ranks of schoolboys come up behind to replace them.  We have not been able to give our sons anything.  Not even one golden year.  Gashed and splattered ….

Even so, they resent the outsider Lawrence telling them what they already know.  Lawrence wants only to live in peace with his wife.

 But it’s not enough any more to have few wants and try to hide away from the war in the hollow of an empty landscape.  There aren’t any empty landscapes, though you think there are when you first arive, full of pure naivety and hope.  It won’t work.  Ordinary tins are dangerous.  They must not show a light, they must not tar their chimney, they must not have curtain of different colours hanging in the same window …. A block of salt in a bag may be a spy’s camera …

He’s not the only outsider living in this closed community.  Clare Coyne, half-Cornish (on her long-dead mother’s side) lives with her non-Cornish father .  He lives in a self-imposed state of isolation while she is more integrated with her aunts and her cousins.  This family provides the microcosm Dunmore needs to explore the traditional WWI experience: the boys at the front, the girls in waiting, the return on leave of a shell-shocked soldier and the bad things that result.  This side of the novel is not original but it is told with great humanity and complicated by the friendship that forms between Clare and Lawrence; a friendship that is first encouraged by her father, then misinterpreted once trouble arrives at Clare’s door.  That misinterpretation the catalyst for the betrayal of Lawrence in an ending with two morales.  1)  Beware the fellow outsider and 2) daughters are more easily protected than sons.

I read this for January’s Literature and War Readalong at Beauty Is  A Sleeping Cat.  I’m thankful to Caroline for picking it.  My edition, a 99p special promotion from the now sadly defunct Ottakar’s bookchain, has sat patiently on my TBR for a few months shy of 10 years. It will probably be the longest-serving waitee to receive my attention during the 2012 TBR dare.