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07 October 2005

Talking to the Dead

By Helen Dunmore

From Amazon.com: "Long-buried secrets and resentments bubble lazily to the surface over a few short weeks when Nina, a London photographer and artist, goes to the English countryside to help her outwardly perfect older sister Isabel, who has just suffered through a difficult birth. Though the household - Isabel's husband Richard, friend Edward, baby Antony, and a local nanny - seems hermetically sealed against the world, past and present rear up to strike the sisters. 'This house is stiff with things that can't be said,' observes Nina. Stifling heat, menace, and memories radiate from these pages, keeping the reader on edge."

I would not have finished this book if it hadn't been written by Helen Dunmore. The novel was slow, slow, slow and took its sweet old time building into what became a hectic page-turner through the last third. However, this is the fifth Dunmore novel I've read, the most exemplary being a chronicle of the siege of Leningrad during WWII, so I sat back and let her take her time.

In fact, now that I think about it, ALL of her novels have a similar style of slow, intense dramatic tension building toward a rapid, shuddering finale. In this way, I agree with a review I once read that compared her work to both Emily Brontë, or more specifically, to her unflinching, unsenti- mental gothic classic Wuthering Heights, and Ian McEwan and his fastidiously planned, mind-bending mousetrap of a novel, Atonement. Both of these novels are in my top-five favorites of all time, so I agreed with the review - and it's no wonder, then, that I enjoy Dunmore's work.

Her medium is prose, but her language is poetry. Sentences drip with imagery, with sensation. Here are two examples, taken just from the prologue, where I've highlighted the phrases that struck me as particularly powerful:

"Will you want the coffin open, or closed?"
"Some people," one of them whispered, "some people find it a great comfort actually to have
seen. Not to have to imagine. It can be a great comfort."
"A great comfort," I say aloud, taking the words out like stones from my pockets, tossing them into the quiet air.


It's hot and dry, and the earth smells like a body stretched out to bake in the sun. Bees have swarmed on the other side of the church. I went round just now, and saw them hanging there in a dark cluster under the rood. Stray bees zinged through the air toward the swarm, and their sound was dangerous, like water in a kettle that has nearly boiled dry.

However, I found this the least successful of the Dunmore books I have read. The relationship between the sisters, Nina and Isabel, was harsh and diametrically opposed. Although their closeness was revealed in flashbacks, no sense of that loyalty and devotion came through in their adult relationship. An odd sexual affair added an extra layer of implausibility. The conclusion, while still a fast-paced and interesting change from the fatigue of the novel's lengthy introduction, lacked the overall impact and emotional resonance of her later, more practiced and triumphant books such as Mourning Ruby, Your Blue-Eyed Boy, and the aforementioned The Siege. Ultimately I enjoyed Talking to the Dead, but I wouldn't recommend it as anyone's first exposure to Helen Dunmore.

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