Blasts from the Past: Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore (1996)

Cover imageThis is the latest in a series of occasional posts featuring books I read years ago about which I was wildly enthusiastic at the time, wanting to press a copy in as many hands as I could.

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog you may have noticed that I’m a huge fan of Helen Dunmore’s writing. She’s the one I always turn to as an example of the way in which male writers still manage to eclipse women in terms of coverage and kudos. Inevitable, then, that one of her books would crop up in this spot eventually and it had to be this one: it’s the book that got me my first freelance gig writing reading guides for Bloomsbury’s website when it was awash with Harry Potter money and generous enough to feature other publishers’ titles. For me, Dunmore’s writing is hard to beat and Talking to the Dead showcases it beautifully.

Nina has gone to help her sister Isabel, weak from the difficult birth of her first child and in retreat from the rest of the world. Both Nina and Isabel’s husband are deeply concerned for her mental and physical welfare but eventually find themselves drawn into an obsessive affair. As the heat of the summer intensifies so do relationships within the household. Nina begins to remember scenes from her childhood with Isabel, in particular disturbing memories of their brother who died at three months supposedly of cot death. The pace of the narrative quickens as it works towards its shocking climax when Isabel goes missing.

For such a slim volume, Talking to the Dead is a richly complex book. On one level it has the pace of a thriller with clues scattered throughout the plot. On another and almost contradictory level, it is a long prose poem written in language which is as sensuous and languorous as the heat which seems to permeate every page. On yet another level it is packed with insight into the complications of family life and the secrets which may lie hidden for years but which can both shape and destroy our lives. Dunmore’s writing is richly poetic (she’s said that poetry is a more natural medium for her than fiction, although she excels at both) and her sensuous descriptions of both food and sex in Talking to the Dead are fine examples of it. It’s still one of my favourite books after all these years, and not just because it got me my first break.

What about you, any blasts from the past you’d like to share?

18 thoughts on “Blasts from the Past: Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore (1996)”

  1. I read Zennor in Darkness not long after it came out in 1993 and enjoyed it immensely – so i suppose that might count as a ‘blast from the past’! Like the sound of this one, too.

    1. It certainly does in the book trade! Dunmore has such a range in her fiction but it’s always beautifully crafted. I think if you enjoyed Zennor you’d like this too.

      1. Ha1 Yes, I love this one. She’s only put one foot wrong for me and that was Counting the Stars about Catullus.

  2. I’m still hoping to read one of Dunmore’s books sometime soon, but I don’t think this is one that our library has. I’ll keep my eye out for it, anyway. I suspect, though, most of them are good. Are there any that you *wouldn’t* recommend?

    1. Just the one – Counting the Stars which is about Catullus and really doesn’t work. I suspect your library won’t have that one, though.

        1. I bet it’ll have The Siege which is a very good place to start particularly as I seem to remember you like historical novels.

  3. David John Wright

    Absolutely loved this book….and Helen Dunmore. So dense and visceral in a tiny package.
    Families in all their true complexities.

  4. Pingback: Talking to the Dead x 2: Helen Dunmore and Elaine Feinstein | Bookish Beck

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