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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Many mysteries
Dunmore's fourth novel is a delicately chilling tale of two sisters. Photographer Nina lives in London, has a successful career and loves cooking and sex. Isabel (we never quite find out what her career was, if she had one) is an elegant housewife living in Sussex, who devotes her time to creating the perfect house and garden, suffers from a mild form of anorexia, but has...
Published on 6 Sep 2011 by Kate Hopkins

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not totally convincing but still an interesting read
This is the fourth of Helen Dunmore's novels, first published in 1996, and the first of her works to be published in North America. The narrator, Nina, a not very committed artist and photographer, visits her older sister, Isabel, who is recovering from physical and mental problems after the birth of her first child, Antony. Isabel and her husband, Richard, a...
Published 16 months ago by Dr R


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19 of 20 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Many mysteries, 6 Sep 2011
By 
Kate Hopkins (London) - See all my reviews
(TOP 1000 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Talking to the Dead (Paperback)
Dunmore's fourth novel is a delicately chilling tale of two sisters. Photographer Nina lives in London, has a successful career and loves cooking and sex. Isabel (we never quite find out what her career was, if she had one) is an elegant housewife living in Sussex, who devotes her time to creating the perfect house and garden, suffers from a mild form of anorexia, but has what on the surface appears to be a wonderful marriage to a slightly older economist. The sisters share memories of a childhood when they were incredibly close, and of their baby brother, who mysteriously died when he was three months old. When Isabel gives birth to a baby boy, Nina goes to stay with her in Sussex and help care for her throughout the blisteringly hot summer. Seemingly without planning anything, Nina begins an affair with Isabel's husband, Richard, causing tension to begin in the household. She also begins to brood more and more on her brother's death, all those years ago. Was it cot death, or was Colin killed? And if so, who was the killer? Why does Nina think she remembers Isabel standing by his cot the morning he died? The novel takes up elements of the thriller as Nina tries to uncover her memories of the past. But how reliable a narrator is she?

As always with Dunmore, this is a beautifully written piece of fiction. The descriptions of the hot Sussex landscape, and of Southern Cornwall where Isabel and Nina grew up, are beautiful.There are also some wonderful descriptions of food. The dialogue is also very convincing, even though some of Nina and Richard's exchanges can seem a little stilted (one is never quite sure what has prompted these two to start their affair). And the relationship between Isabel and Nina, so different and yet so close, is a fascinating one. Reading this book is in many ways a wonderfully sensual experience.

However, Talking to the Dead may raise rather more questions than it answers. For example, how much are we to trust Nina as a narrator and as a person? Are we meant to like her? And is Isabel as manipulative as Nina implies? What really draws Richard to Nina? And are Nina's memories of what happened when she was a child, uncovered in the final pages, to be trusted? In a way, I would have liked a little more information at the end, and to have had more of the mysteries cleared up. But these are only small quibbles - in many ways 'Talking to the Dead' is an excellent and thought-provoking read.
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Twisting, teasing, tantalising, 10 May 2010
By 
Mrs. Katharine Kirby "Kate" (HELSTON, Cornwall United Kingdom) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (TOP 100 REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Talking to the Dead (Paperback)
Wow this book is a stunner. You keep thinking you've got the answer, then - all changes - but - at the very end the absolute truth revealed... Delicious, dreamy descriptions of dinners, dusky gardens, dangerous attractions. Wonderfully written, these people jump off the page ready formed and truly real. Read it all in one go on a hot sunny day, in a garden. The answer to everything lies in the last sentence which you wouldn't understand if you jump to it a moment before!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not totally convincing but still an interesting read, 17 April 2013
By 
Dr R (Norwich, UK) - See all my reviews
(TOP 500 REVIEWER)   
This review is from: Talking to the Dead (Paperback)
This is the fourth of Helen Dunmore's novels, first published in 1996, and the first of her works to be published in North America. The narrator, Nina, a not very committed artist and photographer, visits her older sister, Isabel, who is recovering from physical and mental problems after the birth of her first child, Antony. Isabel and her husband, Richard, a globe-trotting economist, are renting a large house in the countryside near Brighton which also brings together Edward, Isabelle's gay confidant, and the nanny, Sarah, whose family lives nearby, who has also been hired to support Isabelle and Antony.

The events described in the book takes place under a boiling sun which is consistent with the behaviour of Nina, who has had "19, or 20, lovers" and who immediately begins an affair with Richard, perhaps to spite her sister who is three years older. However, Dunmore's style is rather cool which does not match the stifling events of the novel very well.

Nina and her sister were brought up in a rather strange household by their mother, a successful potter, and father, a much-less-successful poet with a drink problem, which suffered from the loss of their baby brother, Colin, who died in his cot when only a few months old. As the book develops we find that each of the sisters have a very different memory of Colin's death and the author cleverly plays with the reader's sympathies for each of the sisters in turn.

Other experiences of their childhood are revealed in flashbacks and through Nina's nightmares which clearly show that the sisters had, and still have, a very troubled relationship. Isabel, the more dominant sister in both their childhood games and their adulthood used to enjoy gardening but, gradually, has stopped going out of doors and spends a great deal of her time talking with Edward in her room. Much of the novel takes place inside Nina's head and we come to question the reliability of her thoughts and memories.

The characters do not appear to be emotionally linked to one another, indeed they all seem to be using one another, and some (Susan, her mother, Margery, and Edward) seem just sketched in and almost a little out of focus. As a result the horror of the story builds rather slowly and is subverted by the implausibility of the Nina-Richard affair. However, Antony's behaviour, which in some ways is at the heart of the novel since his cries link back to Colin's short life, and the various responses of the adults to this, are very well described.

Food, its preparation, presentation and consumption, plays a significant role in the development of the novel but, as a "non-foodie", I was not very engaged by this. The parallel between the enjoyments of eating and of sex was rather hammered home, concluding with an interrrupted session in the kitchen. The device of a secret drawer in a bedroom cabinet which reveals a crucial piece of information at the end of the novel is also much too hoary to be credible.

Reading this novel and comparing it with, for example, Dunmore's last three novels Counting the Stars (2008), The Betrayal (2010) or The Greatcoat (2012) shows how much she has developed her skills in presenting her characters and engaging the interest of the reader.

In conclusion, whilst I was ultimately disappointed in this book it served to demonstrate the many years of hard work that go into the polished prose and presentation of different and interacting characters, places and events of experienced novelists. In literature as in other areas, nothing is as simple, seamless and straightforward as it appears. In my opinion, Helen Dunmore is one of our most accomplished novelists and I would recommend her work to readers.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Talking to the Dead, 10 Feb 2012
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This review is from: Talking to the Dead (Paperback)
The story keeps you guessing as to who has the psychological problems - two sisters with issues from their past. It could be both!After finishing reading the book many weeks ago I still question the 'truth' in the actions of the protagonists.
A good read and very suitable for a book group discussion.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars One of Dunmore's best, 28 Nov 2011
By 
J. Willis (London) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Talking to the Dead (Paperback)
The actual plot of Talking to the Dead is not anything particularly new. The main protagonist Nina visits her sister Isabel to help out after the difficult birth of Isabel's baby. The novel then has the set up of two sisters, family secrets, set during a hotter than average Summer, secrets which threaten to wrench them apart etc etc. Despite the familiar set up though I could not put this book down.

There are a lot of dark themes running throughout the book and the two sisters Nina and Isabel are not particularly likeable (in fact almost hateful) but I was desperate to know what happened next and the writing conjured up a wonderfully tense atmosphere.

I'm not giving much away but I will say that the plot had me guessing right up to (and I'm not exaggerating) the last sentence. This novel is disturbing and at times I was shocked by events but it is also additively intriguing.

"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."
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars intriguing, 12 Oct 2013
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I really was drawn into this story, very well written and great description with a plot that draws you in and keep you page turning
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant, 4 Aug 2013
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Helen Dunmore has never yet disappointed this book makes you stop and think sad but worth reading I loved it.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Haunting, sensuous, enigmatic..., 15 Jan 2013
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This review is from: Talking to the Dead (Paperback)
This was the first Dunmore I read, many years ago, and I have re-read it with increasing pleasure and admiration twice since then. The atmosphere and events are so sensuously evoked, the characters are so vividly realised, and the mystery at the heart of events is so intriguing and horrible, that you are compelled to read it all once you have started. Few books maintain such an impetus, create such an impending sense of disaster under the lush surface of things, and end with such a mind-wrenching jolt.

It is a first-person narrative, in this case by Nina, the younger of two sisters, and as always the question is: how much can you trust the narrator? And this is key to the next question: which of the sisters killed baby Colin their brother? Or was it truly an accidental cot-death?

The relationship of the two sisters is slowly revealed. Nina is three years younger than Isabel, who was almost a surrogate mother to her in childhood. The adult Nina veers between deep love and trust when she remembers her childhood, and a rival's desire to thwart and break free from someone who so dominated and controlled her. Isabel is still a ruthless and manipulative person, especially in controlling Nina. She relishes power. But she has problems with food, and with sex, and with going outside her house, and with meeting strangers. Her feelings towards her new baby are ambiguous.

The reader feels like a guest in the house party, trying to piece together the truth from Nina's fragmented memories, Isabel's version, the official family version, meanwhile trying to assess the nature and veracity and motives of all concerned.

Oscar Wilde's words come to mind: The truth is rarely pure, and never simple.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A good read, 27 Nov 2012
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I found it very engrossing and beautifully written but I didn't like the ending. It left me feeling rather depressed and I decided not to read her books again for a while.
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5.0 out of 5 stars An absorbing book, atmospheric and evocative as well as ..., 20 Aug 2014
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An absorbing book, atmospheric and evocative as well as unsettling. Helen Dunmore's style is slightly cruel, brutally truthful and always refreshing. This is a difficult book to put down!
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Talking to the Dead
Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore (Paperback - 25 Oct 2007)
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