Tag Archives: women’s prize

Review: A Spell of Winter

CW: rape, incest, parental abandonment, animal (horse) injury, death of loved ones, abortion

My journey through the Women’s Prize winners list continued this month with Helen Dunmore’s A Spell of Winter, my first Dunmore read and the very first novel to win the Women’s Prize (back when it was called the Orange Prize). I buddy read this one with some amazing bloggers, and suggest you check out their reviews as well! Here are the links for: Callum, Rachel, Naty, Sarah (review pending) and Hannah (review pending – I’ll update these links as reviews appear)!

aspellofwinterIn the novel, Cathy narrates the story of her upbringing in a remote part of England on the cusp of WWI. Her family is falling apart as fast as the manor they live in, leaving Cathy and her brother Rob to parse rumors and secrets for the truth of their missing parents. Raised by an emotionally distant grandfather with particular ideas for their futures and by overly-involved house staff, Cathy and Rob form a close bond- perhaps too close- that causes further emotional fracturing as the two finally reach adulthood and gain a wider sense of the world than they had ever known in the manor. It’s a tragic tale of the lasting effects one person’s actions can have on another, and of coming of age in a rapidly changing world.

“My grandfather had turned my parents into shadows, and, as far as I knew, everybody had agreed to it.”

Despite the word “winter” in the title, this is an excellent book to reach for at the height of spooky season (it would also be great for winter, of course). Much of the book has a very Gothic feel- it’s not a high-tension mystery or supernatural fright fest, so don’t enter this one expecting Daphne du Maurier or Shirley Jackson. Though so many of the details are eerie and unusual, its a fairly straightforward story of one girl’s quest for adulthood. That said, the element that I enjoyed the most was the atmospheric Gothic touch that turns nearly everything from Cathy’s childhood slightly sinister.

” ‘A pity there hasn’t been a death in the family,’ said Kate. ‘With your skin you’d look like a queen in black.’ “

There’s some truly devastating content here, and I had to put the book down a few times to let my emotions catch up with me- usually I’m an embarrassingly cold reader and not particularly affected by fictional details, so this response is a standout; I was completely captivated by these characters and their situation. Cathy’s grandfather comes from no one and nothing, and is focused on building a home and legacy for the future generations of his family. Cathy’s mother doesn’t feel she fits in this dream and runs away- alone. Her father is so distraught that he’s eventually admitted to a sanatorium as a mental patient. Her brother is the only one who really understands what her life has been like, and keeps her close. Her governess takes pity on pretty, almost-orphaned Cathy and loves her nearly to the point of obsession. Kate, the young woman who attends to both children and the house’s upkeep (among other household staff), is dedicated to her duties but longs for a life of her own in which she’s entitled to more than a leaking attic bedroom. No one means Cathy ill, and their own motives are generally good and reasonable, but the girl is deeply hurt by all of them. Dunmore presents the reader with a masterpiece of characterization full of human intrigue and desperation, and this is the area in which she succeeds without question.

“I wonder sometimes, if it’s the people themselves who keep you company, or the idea of the them. The idea you have of them.”

I found myself less enthusiastic about the ending of the novel. Though the entire book was a very quick and engrossing read for me, there’s a definite shift in the last third or so of the novel when the war finally comes into play that made the structure of the book start to fall apart for me. To some degree, this might be down to no more than a pacing issue, but it led to a lot of confusion on my part of what this book was aiming to do. Is it a war story? I’m still not sure, though I think not. It’s hard to relegate such an important world event that clearly impacted these characters immensely to a mere chapter in their lives, but I do wonder whether the backdrop of this particular time period actually adds anything to the story. It certainly adds more tragedy to Cathy’s life, and the time period explains certain habits / ways of life at the manor, but I would argue that it doesn’t change Cathy’s relationships with any of the main characters, which in my opinion is the central focus of this story. Thus, I couldn’t quite appreciate the tonal shift.

I also thought the book’s ending chapter somewhat anticlimactic; the final scenes depict the first time Cathy is able to make reasonably informed decisions in her own interest, and seeing convictions from her younger years overturned is a victory in itself, but I found the ease with which she makes those choices and the apparent lack of conflict in following them through rather bizarre. It also seemed surprisingly emotionless after the string of heart-wrenching tragedies leading up to it. It wasn’t, for me, a satisfactory conclusion, though I felt the book a worthwhile read regardless, and enjoyed engaging with its themes.

“Abandoning, betraying, powerful, she had filled our dreams as she would never have done if we’d had her living presence. They were confused dreams from which I woke with an ache of guilt. I hadn’t loved her enough. If I had loved her more, she would never have gone. I had saved half my bar of nougat for her but then I had eaten it.”

All told, I would say this is an excellent choice of literature if you’re looking for something dark and bleak that examines a childhood without parental guidance and affection, forbidden love, familial obligations, and a life of seclusion. Dunmore’s writing is both flowing and haunting, easy to read but also determined to crawl under the reader’s skin. The synopsis on the cover (and on Goodreads) offers little in the way of what to expect, and I can see where not knowing what you’re getting into here could lead to less than favorable experiences for some readers, though the right audience will find this a gorgeous (if grim) book. It’s a tricky title to recommend, so I won’t be pushing this one on anyone, but I do hope that those interested enough to pick up A Spell of Winter will find as much to appreciate in its pages as I did.

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This is a very difficult book to describe, and a difficult story to explain my reaction to, so I’m not sure I’ve done it any justice. Dunmore is clearly a skilled writer (I look forward to reading more of her work, though I haven’t had a chance to thumb through her backlist yet and pick out a follow-up; feel free to recommend any of her titles!), and I think this was a deserving book to take the first Women’s Prize win. (I look forward to reading more past winners as well!). It’s hard to say I enjoyed the read when most of it was really very sad, but… I absolutely did.


The Literary Elephant

Review: A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing

CW: cancer/terminal illness, molestation and rape, verbal abuse, parental abandonment, self-destructive behavior, beatings/physical abuse, emotional abuse… (I’m realizing that some of the CWs might be spoilery, so I’ll stop here with the warning that anyone trying to avoid specific triggers should ask or look deeper into the book’s content before reading because there’s more.)

This was my first year reading the entire Women’s Prize longlist, and it certainly won’t be my last! Though I didn’t love all of the titles (or the direction the judges went with the shortlist, but that’s another matter), it was an enjoyable and worthwhile experience, and sparked my interest in reading more of the past winners. Fortunately, I found a great group to tackle this project with! First up was 2014 winner Eimear McBride’s A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, a buddy read with Hannah, Callum, Sarah, Naty, and Rachel.

agirlisahalfformedthingIn the novel, our unnamed protagonist narrates her life experiences to her older brother. The boy has been hindered for much of his life as the result of a childhood brain tumor that’s been expected to recur. The girl has been victim to all sorts of heartbreak and abuse in the meantime- her father’s abandonment of the family, her mother’s cruelty, inappropriate sexual attention from her uncle, and more. Her traumas shape her into a self-destructive person without a sense of identity separate from the horrors that have defined her life.

“Peel the skin off why don’t you, rip it from my bone.”

The first thing to note about this book, even before worrying about the difficult content, is the challenging writing style. McBride uses a unique form of stream-of-consciousness writing that presents as fragmented gasps and spurts and appears almost nonsensical upon first inspection. I needed to read the first three chapters twice to feel that I had a reasonable grasp of what was being conveyed; even after I reached a point at which I was able to resume a normal reading pace, I never broke past the sense that I was translating or deciphering the prose while reading, rather than understanding it organically. The writing plays with sentence structure, capitalization, spelling, etc. In the interest of full disclosure, here’s a small sample from the most experimental chapter:

“Puk blodd over me frum. In the next but. Let me iar. Soon I’n dead I’m sre. Loose. Ver the aIrWays. Here. mY nose my mOuth I. VOMit. Clear. CleaR. He stopS up gETs. Stands uP. Look. And I breath. ANd I breath my.”

It hardly looks like English here, but this is the point at which I finally started crying and live-texting a friend over how absurd and profound it seemed that anything written in this way could have such an effect. I’m sure this will alienate many readers who aren’t prepared for it, but a large part of the book’s brilliance is tied to the fact that this complicated style makes a perfect fit for the tone and content of the book; no other style would have done this story the same justice. Through most of my time with A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, I expected to rate the book 4 stars, with 1 removed for the dense and chaotic writing, but finally toward the end it worked a particular sort of magic in which it moved me not despite the way it was written, but precisely because it was written this way.

I would never have been able to comprehend what I was reading if I had listened to this book for the first time on audio, but after reading I went back to listen to a sample of McBride narrating the audiobook and was just as stunned with the style in that format. It is readable, but you must be willing to fully engage.

“There’s no room in this part of me anymore. Relief. I think. What’s next and next? It’s surely coming now.”

As far as content, I don’t want to say much beyond that A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing is absolutely brutal. It’s not a long book, and McBride doesn’t waste time lingering over the most painful moments or spoon-feeding their implications to the reader.Nor does she shy away from the narrator’s hard truths. It’s revelatory, rather than uplifting. Don’t expect a happy ending here.

What you can expect is an emotionally and psychologically observant account of the effects that abuse can have on a child, and on a woman. From our protagonist’s confused sense of self to alternating rebellious and acquiescent behavior, there’s no question that her traumas- whether she understood them to be traumas or not- have played a role in every aspect of her life afterward. She’s not so much broken as grown askew, molded into shapes that others demanded of her and punished when she didn’t fit. It’s an important glimpse into just how damaging some actions can be, and no reader should expect to emerge unscathed. I certainly didn’t.

“Thanks for the fuck you thanks for that I hear his walking crunching. Foot foot. Go. Him Away.”

It’s hard to recommend this book widely while both the content and writing seem designed to push the reader to every extreme. But if, somehow, you’re still with me at this point and not running as fast as you can from the bare power of this book, it might be worth a try.

My reaction: 5 out of 5 stars. This is absolutely one of the most complex and accomplished books I have ever read, as well as one of the most emotionally taxing. I walked around in a bit of a stupor the night I finished it, and agree entirely with the jacket: “It is a book you will never forget.” This is one of a very few books I’ve read this year that I can confidently say will find its way to my Favorite Books of 2019 list, and I certainly plan to read more from McBride, as well as more former Women’s Prize winners. Even though I tremble at the thought of encountering another story like this.

What’s the most difficult book you’ve ever read?


The Literary Elephant