On 5th June 2017, the world lost a brilliant writer. I know I am far from alone in feeling the loss of Helen Dunmore, whose books contain some of the most nuanced, delicate portrayals of relationships I’ve ever read.
My favourite of her works is an old one: 2007’s Talking to the Dead. I wanted to post a review of it here which I wrote a while ago; I read the novel in one sitting and it still sits in pride of place on my bookshelf.
Talking to the Dead is really chilling to read. Helen Dunmore is a master of subtle suspense, and the setting of the sumptuous garden near the coast (there’s a house too, of course, but a lot of key moments take place outside, hidden amongst the flowers) for me gave the entire novel a very mesmerising yet unsettling feel.
The story is narrated by Nina, who is visiting her younger sister Isabel after the latter suffers a traumatic childbirth. From the beginning there is something slightly off about the sisters’ relationship; we learn that they suffered an alcoholic father plus the death of their baby brother Colin in his infancy, an incident that seems shrouded in mystery and is seldom discussed within the family. Neither sister can quite remember what happened that day (Isabel was seven, Nina was four) but there is something strange about it, and the echo of the newborn Anthony only gives the issue greater tension.
Dunmore’s use of the present tense really brings the novel to life; she achieves a delicious claustrophobia in her words, and uses intimate descriptions of food and the garden to draw the reader in. The garden is full of fig trees, which emanate a “warm, spicy smell,” and ladybirds swarm, enclosing the characters of Dunmore’s narrative in thick, sticky secrecy. Her language is evocative, poetic at times, and one imagines that this is a very beautiful place, despite it’s darkness. The imagery is so strong throughout the book, “the sky looks like a junkyard,” that it hooks you over and over again; every paragraph is rich, every paragraph drips with cleverly crafted words. An image of Isabel cutting black dahlia heads with her secateurs haunted me for weeks after reading: “Dahlia heads drop to the dry soil and the path like velvet buttons. Snip, snip, snip.”
Nina is a wonderful cook who spends her time concocting meals for the family, trying to make herself useful through her artistic approach to eating (she works in London as an artist and photographer). Isabel remains hidden away upstairs for a lot of the novel, reminding me of the hunchback Colin in The Secret Garden – she is very thin, recovering from the birth of her son Anthony, holed up with her bitchy homosexual friend Edward while Nina and Isabel’s economist husband Richard take care of the household downstairs. In the mix too is Susan, a young baby-sitter who’s just finished her nanny course; and the more the group of adults circle around each other in the house and garden, the more the cracks begin to show, the secrets start to reveal themselves.
It isn’t long before Richard and Nina begin an affair, conducted mainly in the garden while Isabel sleeps indoors. Dunmore writes vividly about their sexual encounters, refusing to sugarcoat the act, emphasising the urgency of the affair every time the pair meet. It is hard to like Nina – in fact I struggled to really warm to any of the characters, and you are never quite sure who to trust, right up until the very last page. When the final family secret, the most horrifying one of all, is revealed – it sends a shiver down the spine. I’d go as far as to call this book frightening, in places, and the twisting web of the family continues to stay with you even after you’ve closed the novel.