This is my review of Zennor in Darkness by Helen Dunmore.
Having read Helen Dunmore's spare and brilliant novel "Lies" focused on a shell-shocked young Cornishman in the aftermath of World War 1, I was interested in comparing it with her début novel published twenty years earlier, "Zennor in Darkness". Set in 1917, this describes how the tentacles of war have reached into rural Cornwall, with teenage boys conscripted from remote farmhouses, and cottage windows darkened with blackout curtains to deflect the German U-boats venturing near the coast to prey on British supply ships.
Since the author is also a poet, it is perhaps not surprising that "Zennor in Darkness" has a touch of Under Milk Wood with its array of local characters. The two who emerge most sharply in the foreground are at least to some extent outsiders: young would-be artist Clare Coyne, whose genteel Catholic father stayed on in Zennor after his wife's premature death, and the author D.H.Lawrence, who hoped in vain to find a refuge in Cornwall from the public outrage over his attacks on the war, and his marriage to Frieda, a German who had abandoned her husband and children to be with him.
The present tense which seems to have annoyed some reviewers did not trouble me at all. I hardly noticed it, and think that in fact it creates an increased sense of immediacy, and awareness of what each character is observing and feeling. However, the novel is clearly less taut and polished than "Lies". Several scenes, such as the opening chapter with three girls sunbathing on the beach is too rambling, with a confusion at times as to who is talking or who the identity of the main character – I thought at first it was Clare's cousin Hannah. There also seemed to be a bewildering excess of names to cope with at first. The writing sometimes seems over-intense.
This is a slow burning novel, a stream of impressions and thoughts. It conveys as far as I can tell a powerful and evocative sense of the Cornish landscape and the ambiance of a tightknit, closed community. Dunmore is also good at portraying relationships between people, their shifting emotions, misunderstandings and mutual criticism despite strong empathy, even love. Although in the main uneventful, requiring the reader to take time and savour the originality and beauty of Dunmore's prose, the novel shifts into a higher gear for the final third to reach a convincing conclusion.