Zennor in Darkness – Helen Dunmore

This story is set in 1917, the war is ravaging across the water in France but in a part of Cornwall, the effects of it are far-reaching. Many young men have not come back, their bodies buried where they lay. Some are lucky, like John William who have survived and been commissioned to be an officer, return back but with darkness in their souls from what they have seen.

There are others Lawrence and Frieda. Lawrence cannot go to war due to ill health but their marriage causes upset amongst the locals; she left her husband and gave up her children to be with the man she loves, but worse than that she is German and related to Baron Richthofen. Suddenly where you come from is very important in Zennor.

Cornwall cannot hide them any longer as rumours are rife that by purely hanging out the washing she is using this as a signal to passing  German U-Boats. But there are some locals who do not seem to treat them as an interest to be avoided, a couple with a differing view of the world and the insular life of Cornwall. One of those is Clare Coyne who is a young girl, looking after her widowed father, struggling to make ends meet with no money and a lack of food as well as trying to live her own life.  When her cousin John William returns prior to taking up his commission life changes forever and the effects of war are felt most keenly by all around.

I really struggled with this book, something which actually surprised me as this is a typical book I would like. I cannot deny that the writing is excellent, and it is a book which needs to be savoured as the passages are highly descriptive of the area of Cornwall, as is the flora and fauna. Dunmore has also handled the experiences and descriptions of war well and I felt moved by what was written and for that the book has its place. But for me it was the characters which let the book down. I felt there was too many popping up in the book and seemed unnecessary, for example Clare’s friend Peggy, what was the point of her? It meant that I could not really focus on  the story at all as it jumped from one person to the other and the narrative jarred.

There is the use of real life people; Lawrence is actually the controversial writer D.H. Lawrence was an interesting tool but one that did not really come off for me. Their presence could have warranted a novel all of its own.

I was disappointed with this read, but I am sure and I know others have enjoyed the book mine is just one opinion.

I was really interested in the fact that D.H. Lawrence featured in this novel and I did not know much about him other than he wrote Sons and Lovers and the then Sixties controversial trial Lady Chatterley’s Lover. However this book piqued an interest in the background of him and Frieda and went off to read more. From the little bit I picked up on Wikipedia – well you have to start somewhere I suppose I was quite fascinated. I have never read any of his novels and perhaps I might have to venture this way at some point in my reading journey. 

I have read some lovely reviews of this book, I would like to hope that mine is middle of the road and perhaps I was not focused on this book than I needed to be? It just did not grab me and draw me in enough. That said it would not stop me reading any other books by Helen Dunmore. 

Why when a book grabs many others and not us do we feel guilty of even writing a review in case we offend. This was one of the reasons that it seems this blog had suddenly gone quiet for a while!

11 thoughts on “Zennor in Darkness – Helen Dunmore

  1. I know exactly how you feel about writing a not so positive review of a book everyone else seems to have loved! Don’t just feel guilty but also a bit silly…like maybe a missed something that everyone else picked up on. But at the end of the day we are all different, and how boring it would be if we weren’t.

    Shame that this book didn’t live up to expectations. I’m interested by the story’s concept but I am a reader highly influenced by how much I like the characters, so on that basis probably won’t rush out to read this one. Thank you for your honest opinion.

  2. I think I’m with you on this one – I was disappointed and not as gripped as I should have been by something by a favourite author set in a favourite county about interesting people!

  3. I have read The House of Orphans by this author which I recall was not the easiest of reads, so unsure about this ones appeal after reading your review.

    I understand completely your comment as I always feel guilty about writing negative comments, especially if ones gets criticised for doing so, but surely it would be dull if all our reviews were good ones?

  4. It’s a shame you found this disappointing as it does sound so interesting. I might still try it at some point but it sounds like the characters could be a problem for me too.

  5. I know what you mean, especially as some authors are so ‘precious’ they can’t take any tiny criticism! I happen to know a lot of published writers so to me they are just people. I haven’t read anything by Dunmore yet but I would have chosen this one for the setting alone. I’ll try to read another one of her books first.

  6. Why is it that if we read something and don’t like it, we feel that there’s something wrong with us? Especially if it’s a book that’s supposed to be good? Of course, there are books it’s allowed to dislike (Dan Brown’s, Susan Meyer’s and more) but if we read a literary fiction and dislike it, we immediately assume it’s us that didn’t get it, wasn’t paying attention or just isn’t bright enough to grasp it. I do this too – blaming myself if I don’t like a book that’s a classic. But it’s okay not to like every book even though we think we’re supposed to. And it’s perfectly okay you didn’t like this book. You can argue why you didn’t like it, and to me, that’s all that matters. 🙂

  7. Some of Helen Dunmore’s books I have loved, but others haven’t clicked and this was one of them. I forget the details, but I can tell you that my fiance used to word in Zennor with the National Trust, and heard from elderly locals who remebered the Lawrences was their failure to observe the blackout. He said he had to write at night, but with harbours and a gunpowder works nearby …

    I don’t read your review as ‘negative’ but as ‘disappointed.’ You have shown respect for the author and others who have enjoyed the book more, but explained why the book didn’t work for you. Which is exactly right.

  8. You have echoed my opinion exactly. I found it overly descriptive with endless use of adjectives that actually didn’t give any more understanding or depth. As an antidote, Graham Greene says so much more with so much less.

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