Helen Dunmore is a prolific and award winning author, yet this is only the fourth of her novels I have read. I now think I really must make an effort to read the rest. This 1996 novel is an impressive family drama with a fascinating psychological slant.
Dunmore’s excellent writing, with its sultry descriptions of place, draws the reader into the Sussex countryside during a scorching summer, and the lives of a group of rather unlikeable characters. There is a kind of chilly sensuality too in the affair that develops between two of the characters, their coldness perhaps heightened by the backdrop of a record breaking summer. Beware of reading this novel when hungry, there is an enormous amount of food too, the cooking, shopping planning and eating of food, there is a sensuality to this too, the greed of it going hand in hand with the illicit sex.
“Richard hasn’t moved, except to take off his shoes and socks. He lies back with his feet in the sun, eyes shut. His feet are pale, naked-looking, city feet.
‘Here you are’
We dig into the crust, the cream, the fruit. The edges of the pie cream are just beginning, to swim in the heat already. I’ve always liked eating with Richard, because he is greedy, as I am. You can always tell. He leaves the plumpest gooseberry until last, to duck it in its own pond of cream. The sugar grits pleasantly on my teeth.”
‘Talking to the Dead’ is the story of sisters Isabel and Nina. Isabel lives in Sussex with her husband Richard in a house rented in her own name, where her friends – like Edward- come to stay for days and weeks at a time. When Isabel gives birth to her first child Antony – there are severe complications, and Richard asks her sister Nina to leave London to help the young nanny Susan, look after Isabel. Nina, a photographer and artist is devoted to her sister and is happy to spend time with her and the baby. Soon after arriving at her sister’s house Nina embarks on an affair with Richard, as already psychologically fragile Isabel’s behaviour gradually starts to cause concern. Cloistered away with her bitchy friend Edward for hours at a time, Isabel seems reluctant to leave the house, not even going into her beloved garden with which she had formerly been almost obsessed. Shut up in her sister’s house and garden during a ferociously hot summer, Nina begins to feel the strain of caring for her delicate sister and tiny baby, reminding her of a time she would rather forget.
“I am sick of it all. Milk and blood and babies. I lug another bucket down the path, the dark water shivering inside it. Water slops over my bare feet and raises scent from the dust. These trees should never have been planted in a drought. I heft the bucket and walk on, all my skin prickling with attention. I’m waiting. I leave the full bucket standing by the trees and wander on through the gloom, down to the raspberry canes. There are big moths flying. When they land patches of white show up on their wings so they look like jigsaws. Daytime life closes down, and night life begins with its own excitement. I wish I was in the city now, where day and night brush each other for hours. I wish I was in a taxi, hurtling round the corners of parks as they turn from blue to black with dusk.”
For Isabel and Nina share a tragic past, from the time when they lived in St. Ives as children. The secrets of this past gradually begin to reveal themselves through the memories of the sisters. This is a fantastically readable novel, the characters are not very likeable, but I never think that matters, indeed it can make a novel all the more interesting. Just when the reader may think they have it all tapped, Dunmore gently twists the knife – great stuff.