If you don’t know Zennor is a tiny, sleepy, village on the West Coast of Cornwall, Zennor in Darkness sounds like some sort of epic fantasy thriller, involving armies wielding sword and shield and horned battle-helmet, magicians with lots of consonants in their names, a couple of fire-breathing creatures, and a hero who saves the world and gets the girl. Dunmore’s beautiful, shadowy, slippery novel is anything but epic, however–although there is a war; it’s in the trenches in France and under the seas around the coast of England–which is why the lights are out.
Claire Coyne is something of a misfit in the village–her mother’s family and her cousins are fishermen and farmers, and her father Francis is from the impoverished gentry near London. She’s an artist trying to do more than illustrate her father’s work on nature. Although she loves the land, she’s unsure about her relationship with it and her family. Her favourite cousin, John William, is fighting in France, but comes home on a brief leave with shell-shock. David Herbert Lawrence is broke, attempting to escape his scandalised public and publishers and return to nature in a tiny farmhouse near Zennor, ekeing out a meager living from the land with his German wife Frieda, a cousin of Manfred von Richthoven, the Red Baron. Cornwall is a hotbed of wary patriotism and parochialism, which swiftly becomes paranoia as the news from the Front gets worse and censorship and propaganda spread. Then tragedy strikes, and Claire, her family, and the Lawrences are involved in its aftermath…
Told from multiple perspectives, Dunmore’s novel nevertheless moves as a coherent whole. A sense of unreliability is gradually introduced–and although we become irritated with the blinkers of suspicion and xenophobia some characters seem determined to wear, they remain logical, and an uneasy sense that the conclusions they jump to might be right lingers. D.H. Lawrence and his wife are drawn sympathetically, as are the young people living in the shadow of the war and trying to snatch something to hold close before the wreckage. The paranoia of the country people and the rumours they spread, and feed, almost becomes another character in the novel, so deftly it is evoked, and the sense of danger to anyone with a different language–whether it’s German like Frieda’s or the Northern accents of Lawrence, or the slightly more upper-class inflections of Clare and her father, seems sadly real. There are moments of light and humour, and achingly sensual moments of love, but overall, this is a story fractured by shadows and unreliable in its contours.
(Penguin, 1993, 2007)