Friday 24 January 2020

A posthumous collection of Dunmore's stories recalls her lost talent

Fiction: Girl, Balancing, Helen Dunmore, Hutchinson, €15.99

The late Helen Dunmore
The late Helen Dunmore
Girl, Balancing by Helen Dunmore

Amanda Craig

When a writer dies young, as Helen Dunmore did at 64 last year, there is an outpouring of grief and a certain amount of guilt.

The author of 15 novels, numerous children's books and 11 poetry collections, Dunmore won many prizes including the inaugural Orange Prize for A Spell of Winter and, posthumously, the Costa Book of the Year for her last volume of poems, Inside the Wave.

Yet the ultimate accolade, the Booker, was never granted - a transparent injustice, given that The Siege, in 2001, manifestly deserved it.

This final (her fifth) collection of short stories - Girl, Balancing - is itself poised between birth and death, beginning with fragments from the life of the impoverished young Nina, and closing with Writ in Water, in which Keats's friend Severn recalls the poet's death in Rome.

Picked by Dunmore's son, Patrick, from a collection assembled by the author in 2010, but not pursued further, the stories are of variable length.

The best are mostly those inspired by imagining the lives of great poets - Donne, Coleridge, Keats - or by other works of literature, such as Grace Poole's account of her real relationship with Mr Rochester in Jane Eyre and Fanny Burney's harrowing experience of having a mastectomy without anaesthesia.

Most of her characters are the opposite of rich, famous or remarkable. She writes about genius as it might have been observed by others, such as a child performing with an infant prodigy called Wolfgang, and his sister, Nannerl.

The narrator, unlike 'Wulfi', faces a future as a footman, but contact with a genius in whom music "is like a fountain rising higher and higher and showering drops of notes over us all" is life-changing. To the disgust of the genteel audience, he and Mozart perform a famous sea-shanty (The Landlubbers Lying Down Below).

There is a wry, sly humour in many of these tales, though there is often a note of menace and horror, too, as when it is clear that a woman obsessed with buying a perfect property is prepared to murder for it (A Very Fine House), or a couple who see something dreadful happen on the Clifton suspension bridge in A View from the Observatory.

Dunmore is always intensely aware of the sensory texture of ordinary life, its smells, tastes, touch, feelings and fears. Hers was a romantic sensibility in every sense, including the political. As the author said in the postscript to her last novel, Birdcage Walk, she was interested in the lives of people who might otherwise not have been noted by history, real or imagined. Her own interest gives them grace, and a measure of dignity.

Had Dunmore written about the Tudors, or the Nazis, her career might have been more commercially rewarding; as it was, she could produce historical fiction as consummately as she could the contemporary. In all her work, I can think of just one dud, Your Blue-Eyed Boy, and several like Talking to the Dead and Counting the Stars (about, respectively, child murderers and the death of Catullus) that ought to be on every well-read person's bookshelf. She was one of the few successful authors who used her literary prominence to help and encourage other writers (this one included), but her productivity together with her lack of pretentiousness meant that she did not seem sufficiently remote to those who like a touch of awe to mastery.

Many of these stories, almost too sleek and smooth in their manipulation of language and emotion, leave you with the hairs standing up on the back of your neck.

Not all are of equal quality. Indeed, the Nina Stories at the beginning, fail to catch fire until the fourth, Girl, Balancing, in which the young adult Nina escapes a would-be assailant, thanks to a skating trick gained through practise and daring. It's a characteristically Dunmorian moment, like that at the climax of her superb spy thriller, Exposure.

Ice, snow, poverty, hunger, menace and sexual attraction are repeated tropes, as are the sea, home, music and the love of children. It would be interesting to know, one day, where the dark side of her fiction came from, because although it often gives her novels the addictive quality of genre fiction (usually a thriller or a Gothic romance), it rarely feels willed or artificial.

These stories are mostly tasters, amuses-gueules to tempt new readers, and remind old ones of the future works that have now, alas, been lost.

Amanda Craig's novel The Lie of the Land is published by Abacus. ©Telegraph

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