Tag Archives: Talking to the Dead

Six Degrees of Separation – from How to Be Both to Mãn

Six Degrees of Separation is a meme hosted by Kate over at Books Are My Favourite and Best. It works like this: each month, a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the others on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

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This month’s chain begins with Ali Smith’s How to Be Both, something of a Marmite book. It’s a difficult novel to describe, a dual narrative that features a young girl whose mother has recently died and an Italian Renaissance fresco painter. I’m afraid I gave it up.

I much preferred Smith’s more straightforward The Accidental in which an unknown woman bearing gifts turns up, discombobulating the Smart family who are ensconced in their holiday home.

Sarah Perry’s After Me Comes the Flood turns Smith’s idea on its head when a man whose car has broken down knocks on the door of the nearest house only to find himself welcomed as if he’s expected.

Perry’s novel is set on the Norfolk Coast, vividly evoked in Jeremy Page’s Salt which sees Pip trying to make sense of his complicated family history which beginning with a man found buried up to his neck in mud

Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces starts with the discovery of a mud-covered boy, found during an archaeological excavation in Poland. Seven-year-old Jakob has fled the Nazis and is taken home to Greece by the archaeologist who discovers him. Michaels’ lyrical novel was a bestseller back in the ‘90s.

Michaels is an award-winning poet as was Helen Dunmore whose Talking to the Dead is a favourite of mine. It tells the story of two sisters, one recovering from a difficult birth which has brought back long-buried memories. It’s a gorgeously poetic book as well as a page-turning thriller.

Some of the most striking descriptions in Dunmore’s novel are of food, as they are in Kim Thúy’s Mãn about a young woman who leaves Vietnam for Montreal to marry a man she doesn’t know. Mãn cooks for the émigrés who frequent her husband’s café longing for a taste of home. The powerful link between food and memory runs throughout this lovely novella which is also a celebration of language.

This month’s Six Degrees of Separation has taken me from a dual-narrative novel, split between the twentieth and fifteenth centuries to a Montreal café serving Vietnamese food to the homesick. Part of the fun of this meme is comparing the very different routes other bloggers take from each month’s starting point. If you’re interested, you can follow it on Twitter with the hashtag #6Degrees, check out the links over at Kate’s blog or perhaps even join in.

Birdcage Walk by Helen Dunmore: The rights of women

Cover imageHere’s one I’ve been looking forward to ever since I spotted it in the publisher’s catalogue. Helen Dunmore’s new novel, Birdcage Walk, is set in her home town of Bristol against the backdrop of the French Revolution raging across the Channel while Britain looks nervously on. It’s the story of a young woman caught up in her passion for a man, many years her senior, who is intent on fulfilling his ambition of building a grand terrace overlooking the Avon Gorge.

Lizzie’s mother has brought her up to be an independent woman, reflecting her own radical, egalitarian beliefs. Julia is often to be found scratching out pamphlets, sometimes dictated to her by Lizzie’s hopelessly impractical stepfather. Neither of them is fond of Diner whose speculative building plans run counter to their principles but Lizzie conceived a passion for him and was determined to have him. His first wife died in her native France: apart from those barest of bones, he refuses to talk of her but Lucie haunts this marriage.  When Julia dies in childbirth, Lizzie resists Diner’s annoyance, taking her half-brother into the show house that has become their home. Passion is cooling and Lizzie is unsettled by Diner’s jealous need to know her whereabouts. As the news from France finds its way across the Channel, Diner’s plans are undermined – no one wants to sink their capital in a house, no matter how splendid, with the possibility of war on the horizon. Mired in debt, he decides they must make their escape and a revelation is made.

Politics, both national and domestic, runs through Dunmore’s novel, all wrapped up in an expert bit of storytelling with a thread of suspense. Brought up to believe ‘that a woman must not be weak, but instead learn to fend for herself’, Lizzie has been made dependent on her husband by the law which prevents married women from owning property. It can be no coincidence that much of the action takes place in 1792, the year in which Mary Wollstonecraft published her seminal work, A Vindication of the Right of Women. As ever Dunmore’s writing is striking – ‘Do you really think that the storm in France will not blow my hat off?’ asks Diner; ‘Memory. What was that to set against the worms?’ reflects Lizzie in her grief – and her characters beautifully observed. She expertly pulls taut the tension that runs through this marriage between a woman used to freedom and a man who assumes it’s his right to control her. Not Dunmore at her absolute best – the sensuous prose of Talking to the Dead and the sharpness of Exposure remain my favourites – but an engrossing novel, made all the more vivid for me by its setting, a mere ten-minute train ride from where I live. I’ve often walked along the Royal York Crescent on which Diner’s vision is based. It’ll be hard to do that now without thinking of Lizzie, her half-brother wrapped tightly in her shawl, as she makes her way up onto the Downs.

It’s such a sadness to know that this will be Dunmore’s last novel. She has quietly delivered some of the finest writing produced by her generation. Even when writing of facing her own death she is gracefully, elegantly restrained. An enormous talent – how I will miss that frisson of delight that greets the announcement of a new book from her.

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?

Exposure: A Cold War tale of love, betrayal and espionage

Cover imageA new Helen Dunmore’s always a treat for me. Regular visitors may have noticed that she’s the writer I cite when complaining about the ratio of acclaim given to male and female writers.  Exposure has already garnered much in the way of review coverage but when it comes to ranking writers in the contemporary literary canon McEwan, Barnes, Rushdie etc. etc. always seem to win out over the likes of the extremely talented Dunmore. Enough of that for now – no doubt it’s a theme that will be revisited. Like Francesca Kay’s The Long Room, Dunmore’s new novel is set during the Cold War with all its attendant paranoia but whereas events in Kay’s book take place in 1981, Exposure opens in 1960

Three people listen to a train whistle blow: Lily is in the garden, a little unnerved by the noise before realising there’s nothing to worry about; Gus hears it, too, but is unmoved, knowing ‘exactly which train he will catch, if he ever needs to disappear’; ten year-old Paul adores trains and wonders if his father will take him to King’s Cross again soon. Lily was once Lili, a German-Jewish refugee, now married to Simon, son of the landed gentry with whom he’s disassociated himself. He’s almost as obsessed with trains as his son, dashing home from his work at the Admiralty to play with Paul, Sally and five-year-old Bridget. Gus also works for the Admiralty. Educated, well-travelled, sophisticated, louche – he’s a little past his sell-by date and suspected of dallying with Moscow. Trips to the Nightshade to pick up boys are no longer passing without comment. Gus is thick with the high-ranking Julian Clowde and has taken the liberty of bringing a top-secret file home. Up in his attic hidey-hole all seems secure until he takes a drunken tumble, lands himself in hospital and calls upon his old friend Simon to remove the file. For the sake of loyalty and love, Simon agrees but decides not to return it that night as Gus has urgently instructed. Before long those in the Admiralty who have Gus in their sights have sprung into action.

You could describe Exposure as a thriller – not the first Dunmore has written; the wonderfully taut, sensual Talking to the Dead is one of my favourites of hers – but it’s very much more than that. A triumph of storytelling, Exposure is a subtle exploration of loyalty, betrayal and love. The bond that binds Simon to Gus despite long since turning his back on their past relationship, the fierce love Lily has for their children and the almost painfully adult protectiveness they grow to have for her are all beautifully drawn. Dunmore’s writing is always striking, each word carefully chosen. ‘Moscow? It’s like Birmingham, my dears, but without the bright lights’ perfectly conveys Gus’s self-regarding showy wit. Lily’s solicitor is ‘the kind of man who would always know, without even having to think about it, that Lily was a Jew’ summons up 1960s anti-Semitism vividly while Julian contemptuously dismisses her as ‘Exactly the kind of woman to make trouble. Jewish, of course’. It’s an engrossing story well spun, replete with the kind of period detail that has you smelling the coal fires Lily kindles in the chilly Kent cottage the family finds itself in. Gripping storytelling, subtle characterisation and beautifully crafted prose: another Dunmore triumph then