Catherine and her brother Rob come of age in their grandfather's house at the turn of the 20th century. Their mother left them when they were young, their father died, and they were raised largely by household servants. Their grandfather is an eccentric recluse, and any discussion of their parents is taboo. Catherine and Rob turn to each other for protection and to sort out their cruel and confusing world.
And that's when things get creepy. Although it's not a suspense or horror novel, A Spell of Winter unfolded in a similar way, where the reader anticipates an awful event and can only watch it happen. Several times I said to myself, "no, they wouldn't ..." But the siblings' emotional instability leads them to say and do some pretty bizarre things. And then suddenly World War I broke out and the novel took another turn. The pace accelerated, and the latter part of the novel was rather disjointed, as if Dunmore was using the war to tie up a lot of loose ends.
The book jacket on my copy of A Spell of Winter led me to believe this was a novel about emotional healing: "... as Catherine fights free of her past, the spell of winter that has held her in its grasp begins to break." The creepier parts of the book were more convincing than the supposed healing, which happened far too quickly given Catherine's lifetime of hurt and repression. A Spell of Winter was the first novel to be awarded the Orange Prize for Fiction, but it doesn't live up to some of the later winners. ( )