Thoughts: Zennor in Darkness, by Helen Dunmore

I absolutely picked this one because of the title, because “Zennor” is a pleasing word to me. I didn’t realise it was a real place in Cornwall! I also didn’t really have any idea what the book was about.

It’s one of those books where it’s quite hard to say what it is about, or at least give an overview of the plot. It’s quite slice of life, except it’s WW1 British civilian life, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen very often. The soldiers are very much on the fringe of things, and we only get secondhand interpretations of their experiences.

I suppose not a huge amount happens in Zennor in Darkness, but it’s a loving portrait of a natural world that doesn’t exist in much of the UK anymore, and an evocative exploration of wartime life, with all the politics and rationing and suspicion, the sense of being stuck in the middle of this nightmare and not knowing how or when it’s going to end. And it doesn’t end by the end of the book – the characters are changed amid small personal victories and defeats, but the war goes on with no end in sight, and the world as a whole seems a little meaner as well as a little lighter.

I enjoyed it! I liked the deep dive into a snapshot in time, and so many characters’ thoughts (though sometimes it was hard to follow between character thoughts, or from narrative to direct thought, as Dunmore played pretty fast and fluid with dipping in and out of them). I learned about DH Lawrence’s time in Cornwall, and about his inconveniently German wife (even more inconveniently related to the Red Baron). There were some knotty, thought-provoking ideas on the discomfort between older and younger generations with the reversal of experience – how the young have suddenly seen so much more and worse than the old, reversing the usual flow of knowledge, and how uncomfortably it sits back in the familiar-yet-different environs of home. Lawrence’s anti-war stance as well is becoming sharper and more jagged against public opinion as the war goes on and the costs the country has sunk into it are only growing bigger and bigger.

And in between all of this Clare Coyne, our protagonist, is growing up and into herself as a woman, a household-runner and potential wife, a daughter, an artist… She meets DH Lawrence and her world opens up a little. There is a romantic thread with one of her cousins which I guess was normal enough for time and place but is still a bit weird in the modern day, and presumably was when it was written.

Zennor in Darkness is a book in which it feels like not a lot happens, but actually quite a lot happens, slowly and quietly for the most part. People swim against the impossible tide of war and public fear and the shrinking into conservatism that accompanies it, and they lose hope, and they keep going or can’t. They change and are chased out or defended.

I’m not doing a good job of explaining. But I liked it, and I’m glad my arbitrary liking of the title led me to it.

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