British Orange Prize–winning Dunmore (With Your Crooked Heart, 2000, etc.) mixes the spirits of T. Hardy, E. Bronte, and D. H. Lawrence to offer up a country tale of loss, madness, and deep secrecy—all with a vividness that’s luscious and unflagging.
Before WWI, siblings Cathy and Rob grow up in their grandfather’s many-roomed house in the English countryside—but they do so in the most curious of circumstances: their gorgeous and flamboyant mother has abandoned them to live in Europe, and their father (in consequence?) has grown mad, lived for a time in a sanatorium—and then, struck by a horse, has died. The intimacy binding the orphaned two becomes only more intense as they grow older and the household grows smaller—until only they, their aloof grandfather, a cook, and the handsome and stalwart Irish nanny Kate are left as the once-grand farm becomes slowly less vital and the family assets shrink. It isn’t so surprising when Cathy and Rob’s love turns sexual, though one may wonder faintly why it happens, feeling as much a conventional trapping of mood, atmosphere, and theme as it does a dramatic necessity. Dunmore, though, is skilled at keeping her telling always restrained and thus real. Pregnancy, a primitive abortion, the terror of discovery—all follow pell-mell, as does the grippingly mysterious death of the hatefully prim and prudish Miss Gallagher, Cathy’s tutor and nemesis—at least until a strange walk deep into the woods. More abandonment when Kate leaves the farm, and then Rob too, leaving Cathy alone in the empty house to try to eke out a living as the hardships of WWI take hold—a war that will deprive her, perhaps and perhaps not—of everything.
Romantic turmoil, but every square inch done with a sharp exactness of eye, word, and detail that give it the pleasures of a Merchant and Ivory on the page.