Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Review: Talking to the Dead

Title: Talking to the Dead
Author: Helen Dunmore
ISBN: 978-0-316-19645-1
Pages: 304
Release Date: 2006
Publisher: Little Brown & Company
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Rating: 4.0 out of 5

Publisher's Summary: Long-buried secrets and resentments bubble lazily to the surface over a few short weeks when Nina, a London photographer and artist, goes to the English countryside to help her outwardly perfect older sister Isabel, who has just suffered through a difficult birth. Though the household--Isabel's husband Richard, friend Edward, baby Antony, and a local nanny--seems hermetically sealed against the world, past and present rear up to strike the sisters. "This house is stiff with things that can't be said," observes Nina. Stifling heat, menace, and memories radiate from these pages, keeping the reader on edge. Helen Dunmore, winner of the Orange Prize, heightens sometimes overly obvious drama with rich, sensual prose.

My thoughts: Helen Dunmore has written a riveting story about two sisters and the ties that bond them as well as drive them apart. Isabel and Nina were very close growing up, maybe too close. They know each other better than they know themselves. A painful tragedy in their childhood caused both of them, but especially Nina, to push the past away, choosing to forget much of it. But the difficult delivery and birth of Isabel's first child and the memories that come back to Nina while she is staying under Isabel's roof, bring the past back resulting in unintended and surprising consequences for everyone. Talking to the Dead is a tale of love, loyalty, manipulation, fear, anger and betrayal will stay with you long after you finish reading the book.

Nina is anxious to visit and help Isabel out after the difficult birth of her first child, Antony. When Nina arrives at the house, there is the expected tension between she and Richard, Isabel's husband, but Nina also senses an odd attraction that confuses and troubles her. Nina has always considered Isabel superior to herself, smarter, more sophisticated and more talented. She craves Isabel's approval as she always has and desperately wants to please her. This renders Nina awkward and uncomfortable around Isabel, unsure of how Isabel will receive her and if she will be able to please Isabel. Isabel, at first, is sweet and kind, very happy to have Nina staying with her. But it isn't long before Isabel turns selfish and manipulative. She enjoys controlling every aspect of Nina from her thoughts to her actions to what she says. Isabel appears not only aware of Nina's predilection but she capitalizes on it and manipulates her for her own enjoyment.

Nina begins having vivid memories and dreams of her childhood in her parents house shortly after she arrives at Isabel's home. We see the relationship between Nina and Isabel when they were little girls and are privy to events of their childhood through Nina's dreams and memories. As the days and weeks go by and Nina struggles to bond once again with Isabel, she remembers more about her childhood. She recalls her artist parents, more focused on their work than on their children. Isabel and Nina turned to each other for love, comfort and care, as a result. Isabel, the older sister, took on more of a parenting, nurturing role for Nina who worshipped Isabel's every word and deed. Nina was extremely loyal to Isabel and trusted her completely. As a child, Nina believed there was nothing Isabel couldn't do to the point of magical acts that transcend reality. Isabel counted on this loyalty and worship and learned hot to control and manipulate Nina to get it. But the delicate balance in the household is threatened by the birth of Isabel and Nina's little brother, Colin. The girls are shocked to see their mother become the doting parent she's never been for them. While Nina is confused and doesn't understand what's happening, Isabel is perfectly aware of what her mother is doing and doesn't like what she's seeing at all.

Isabel's new baby, Antony reminds Nina of her little brother, Colin, and stirs up these painful, long forgotten memories. As an adult, Nina understands more about Isabel's behavior and her parents. Nina also trusts her memories and her knowledge more now than she did as a child. One night Nina recalls the terrible tragedy that befell the family when she was still a little girl. Her memory of the incident shocks her and she tries to talk to Isabel about it. Isabel disagrees with Nina and remembers things differently, forcing her version of events on Nina. But Nina isn't the same little girl who worshipped everything Isabel said and did. Mixed in with her love and adoration of Isabel there is anger and jealousy.

Nina's feelings for Isabel start to change. She is suddenly confused and troubled by her older sister. What she once thought of as love and caring she now reluctantly sees more as manipulation and a selfishness on Isabel's part. Feelings of anger and jealousy towards Isabel crop up as more memories, thoughts and feelings buried deep inside Nina bubbling to the surface. She is angry one minute, scared and fearful the next. Nina lashes out at Isabel in her anger and painfully betrays Isabel in ways that can never be taken back.

This book is full of tension and raw emotion from the start. The characters, particularly Nina, Richard and Isabel are real and very flawed. I found Isabel particularly difficult to like. She comes off as extremely selfish and manipulative rather than appreciative of the people around her, all more than willing to do whatever will make her feel comfortable and allow her to rest. As the story progresses, some light is shed on Isabel's behavior. Unfortunately, those around her who should love her and care for her are always too wrapped up in themselves to see what Isabel needs and give it to her.

I liked Nina for the most part and I felt badly for her. But when she betrays Isabel I saw a very different Nina and one I'm not sure I like very much! Although I understood why she wanted to hurt Isabel, I find it hard to excuse what she did. But the emotions and behavior started long ago in the sister's childhood. Richard and the nanny, Susan, can't completely understand the dynamics between Nina and Isabel because they weren't there all of those years ago. Poor Richard. He's such a successful businessman but at home he cannot seem to make his wife happy. He just wants her to be happy and comfortable and he wants to be loved. Like so many men, he doesn't get it, he doesn't understand why the women are behaving as they are or what it means.

This is a beautifully written book about how the past is never really forgotten. Things that happen when you're young can have a huge impact when you are an adult. This is not a happy story, not even with the birth of the baby. It's a very painful, sad and surprising story. It's a story about flawed human beings who are too wrapped up in themselves to really understand what the people they love are trying to tell them. But it is a very real, very human story. Relationships are difficult and wonderful and troubling. Love can make people do things they would never imagine themselves capable of until something happens and it's too late to change it.

Helen Dunmore's writing is beautiful. Her use of language and the imagery contrast sharply with the emotion expressed throughout the novel. Here are a few passages I thought were wonderful:

"I'm under the fig tree, with it's big leaves all round me like hands to keep off the sun. There are plenty of figs this year, and for once they're going to ripen. Their warm, spicy smell fills the shade where I sit. It's half-past two and the sky's white with heat. In this weather you sit out the glare, waiting for the long light of evening."

"Slowly, slowly, I push open the door of Susan's room. I make no sound. The pale curtains are drawn, and the room smells of the new pine furniture, and baby sleep. He is rosy with the heat, his hair damp, his fist up to his face. He is sleeping on his side, and Isabel has put a rolled up towel beside him so he can't turn onto his face. I creep right up to the cot. His weight dents the mattress. He looks more solid than I've ever seen him. Already he's changing, filling out, and that fist by his face looks strangely mature."

"He was a handsome man, our father, and five years younger than my mother. He was fair, with the same eyes as Isabel, the same golden skin, which was creased by the time I knew him. By some reckonings my mother was lucky to get him. He drew people round him, because he was funny, because he had a way of making you feel that you were something new and delightful he'd just discovered, and above all because there was something lost and pained in him which people felt without knowing quite what it was. He seemed to need you. My mother didn't seem to need anybody much."

Helen Dunmore won England's Orange Prize for Fiction in 1996 for Talking to the Dead, the year's best novel by a woman writer. this is the first of Helen Dunmore's books that I've read but it won't be my last!


  1. So glad to see you! Hope you are hanging in there...I've missed seeing you around. This book sounds wonderful, except with the caveat that you probably need to be in the right mood. I've never heard of the author, but obviously I need to remedy that!

  2. Hope you are OK. It is lovely to see you back. This book sounds fantastic. I have never read any Helen Dunmore.

  3. I'm glad you see your post. I hope everything is getting better for you.

  4. I hope you are doing well! I love books about relationships and this sounds like a good one.

  5. Thanks for popping over to my journal...and clearly we are meant to have met because I see that you've read your first Helen Dunmore. She's one of my favourite authors. I found Talking to the Dead a bit slow, but I loved My Blue-Eyed Boy and With Your Crooked Heart. I still have her novel Mourning Ruby on my tbr shelf. I am going to have a little nose around your blog and see what else we might have in common!

  6. Yay, welcome back!

    I am so surprised by your post. I thought Helen Dunmore only did middle grade children's books! And she's very good in that genre. In the middle of reading your post I went and checked to make sure "both" Helen Dunmores were the same, and sure enough they are! I'm definitely going to look for her adult books - thanks!

  7. This sounds like the type of story that I would generally enjoy. Great review Amy.

    I hope you are doing okay.

  8. So glad to see you're back to blogging! Did you get my last email? I hope everything is going well for you. Take care!

  9. Hope you're doing well Amy. It's nice to see you blogging. The title of this book threw me off as I finished one last week with the same title, different author. This book sounds really good though. Thanks for the review.

  10. What a wonderful book review! This book sounds so intriguing.

    Thinking of you and hoping all is well. Glad to see you back to blogging. I look forward to your posts. :)

  11. Welcome back. I am going to send you an email-I hope everything is working out.

  12. You're back! I hope you are doing well.
    I just finished reading SAVING CEE CEE HONEYCUTT, by Beth Hoffman. This was her first novel and it's one of the best books I've read.

  13. Glad to see you're reading again. I hope you're doing okay; know that you are in my thoughts every day.

  14. Hey there,

    I stumbled across your blog and I saw that you're a dedicated follower of literature, so I wanted to drop you a line and let you know that I'm currently setting off an a journey you may be interested in. My goal is to read all of the Pulitzer winning novels in one year and write a memoir about my experiences. I would love it if you checked it out and gave me some feedback as I journey along!

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  15. Glad to see you back!