2 capsule reviews: A Spell of Winter + Cockfosters

I’ve never done capsule reviews before–the closest I’ve gotten is the Superlatives roundup at the end of every month–but they strike me as rather a good idea for books that you enjoyed but just can’t summon up the energy/quotes/coherence to do a full-length review for. I’ve read two books this month that I thought were brilliant in their own ways, but full reviews are probably out of the question for the moment. Here, therefore, are two mini-reviews, which I shall think of as two for the price of one (and encourage you to do the same).

cockfosters

Cockfosters, by Helen Simpson

Helen Simpson is basically the doyenne of the modern English short story, though I didn’t realize it until requesting her newest collection from Cape. She’s been writing about the lives of women for years, from university and careers through marriage and motherhood, and now out the other side. Most of the women in this collection are going through menopause, empty-nesters, or negotiating a “blended family” through remarriage. The stories are almost all brilliant.

Each is named after a place, and one of the standouts for me was “Moscow”, a story from the point of view of a successful businesswoman who’s at home one afternoon to let a workman in. He’s meant to be fixing her freezer. He’s Russian, and their brief, desultory chat leads her to think about the way that people’s lives are limited: by history, by gender, by money or the lack of it. Her own childhood and adolescence is subtly, gradually revealed, although never outright stated: it becomes clear that her father was physically and verbally abusive, but only because we read between the lines of her own thoughts. It’s realistic and beautiful and, in its own way, both sad and hopeful.

Nearly every story is exceptional in that sad/hopeful way, from the interior monologue of a woman baking a lemon cake for her daughter’s 18th birthday (considering motherlove and letting your children go into adulthood without you) to the title story, about two old school friends taking the Piccadilly line to its terminus in order to look for a pair of lost glasses. My absolute favorite, though, has to be “Berlin”, a long short story (almost a novella, forty-odd pages) about a couple on a package tour to experience Wagner’s Ring cycle in Berlin over a week or so. The reveal of their past is, again, subtle and gradual, and almost entirely inferred: there’s been some infidelity; they seem to still be in love; the husband is both infuriatingly casual and intensely vulnerable, and he has some anger issues. Their fellow tourists are drawn with equal sympathy. Perhaps the best bit of the whole story is that the operas are sung in German without surtitles, and our protagonist, Tracy, doesn’t speak a word of it. Instead, she spends her nights in the hotel bathroom learning words and phrases, and at the performances of the operas, she is wholly immersed in the music. It’s beautiful ekphrastic writing, weaving the patterns of Wagner’s music with Tracy’s thought processes, and it made me want to listen to the Ring cycle all over again.

The only story that doesn’t 100% work is “Erewhon”, which is a clever little gender-flipped tale (a husband lies awake at night, fretting about how men get uglier with age and how his wife only seems interested in him for the sex, and how he’s underpaid and overworked, and how he worries about upsetting her because she raises her voice to him at every little thing, and so on.) I could easily see a man reading this and being moved to understand the fear and shame and worry that so many women live with, every day. As a woman, though, it didn’t work for me on that level; all I saw was someone suffering whom you don’t expect to see suffer. It seemed thinner than it ought to be; it felt like a story that could have said more, if it had set up different parameters. Nevertheless, potentially revolutionary, and therefore hardly a weak story.

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A Spell of Winter, by Helen Dunmore

This was the second book I read for my Women’s Prize project (I’m now on Half of a Yellow Sun, enjoying it immensely, and worrying about what to say in the review, other than “It’s great! Read it now!”) It’s got taboo Edwardian sex in it, plus a crumbling country house. Sold!

Don’t think of it as Downton Abbey, though; it’s far more twisty and shabby than that. Cathy, the narrator, lives with her brother Rob, her distant and enigmatic grandfather, and her father, who actually spends most of the book in an asylum. Her mother left the family long ago and is now rumoured to live in France. Cathy is being pushed at a wealthy incomer in the neighbourhood, Mr. Bullivant, who seems both kind and interested in her. Instead, however, she falls for her brother. Incest, an unwanted pregnancy, rural illegal abortions, and emotional trauma ensue.

First things first: the sex scenes in A Spell of Winter are excellent. Dunmore uses the kneejerk “ick” reaction to incest to electrify her descriptions; apart from the fact that they’re really hot, we also know that we “shouldn’t” think of them that way, which gives them an extra kick. Her descriptive language is incredible throughout, actually. I kept thinking of scenes in the book as little tableaux: Cathy, Rob and their maidservant Kate, dancing in the orangery; a dead hare dangling from a cellar hook, dripping blood into a little white dish; Miss Gallagher, their former governess, struggling through winter undergrowth. It would make a very beautiful miniseries, if a television producer decided to back it.

Dunmore is also excellent at creating sympathy for a fairly unsympathetic character. Cathy is not kind. She’s beautiful, but in a sort of scary, witchy way; everyone knows she looks like her mother, and that’s not a good thing. She fucks her brother, and she’s exceptionally cruel to Miss Gallagher. That relationship is fascinating: Miss Gallagher is parasitic, demanding Cathy’s love, smothering her with a hungry affection that is frankly horrifying. (If you’ve read Gone Girl, think Desi’s “love” for Amy.) Yet she is also a pathetic figure, terribly lonely and with so little to cling to. She’s simultaneously monstrous and sad. Cathy’s reaction to her is both dreadful and completely understandable. Likewise, the melodramatic events of the book’s second half: they’re almost soap opera, but they don’t just come flying out of nowhere. The reader sees them slowly, inevitably, unfurling, and is both shocked and powerless to stop them.

Also, and rather delightfully, this is a WWI novel where the war is barely there. It comes into the story about three-quarters of the way through; the novel’s far more interested in the tangled relationship dynamics of a family whose history is full of secrets, omissions and lies. Dunmore’s writing is gorgeously evocative without being overblown and meaningless (cf. my review of Fugitive Pieces) and the salacious plot details are backed up by rounded, convincing characters. Definitely worth reaching back into the archives for.

A Spell of Winter won the Women’s [Orange] Prize for Fiction in 1996. It forms part of my project to read all of the past Women’s Prize winners, inspired by the Best of the Best event a few weeks ago.

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