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4.0 out of 5 stars
4.0 out of 5 stars
Talking to the Dead
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on 21 March 2017
Not to everyone's taste, but impressive
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on 3 August 2017
Good read
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on 18 July 2017
As wonderful as ever. So sad that there are no more to come.
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on 7 October 2014
skillfully written story with believable characters
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on 7 December 2014
Found everyone in this book very cold and rather strange. Couldn't get away with the way it was written. Sorry, just not for me.
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Helen Dunmore has long been one of my favourite authors and, with the sad news of her death this year (2017) I wanted to go back to the first of her novels which I read. Published in 1996, this is the fourth of her novels, but the first which I came across and which introduced me to her work.

This novel is set within the heat of summer. Nina is a photographer in London, but she visits the countryside to stay with her sister, Isabel, who has recently had a baby. The birth has not gone as expected and Isabel is unwell. Isabel lives with her husband, Richard, surrounded by her beloved garden and with the almost constant attendance of her friend, Edward. There is also Susan Wilkinson, who has been brought in to look after baby Antony.

The house, and the novel, are full of secrets. There are Isabel’s evasive techniques to avoid going outside, or eating. Plus, the secrets of Isabel and Nina’s childhood, memories of their mother and recollections of their baby brother, which are evoked by the presence of Antony. I love the dynamics between the characters, which are complicated by Nina’s changing relationship with Richard. As tensions increase, there is an impending feeling of disaster, which hangs over the characters as heavy as the heat…

This will forever be a novel I return to and re-read. Although I love other novels by Helen Dunmore, this will probably remain my favourite, just as I was introduced to her writing through reading it, but also because it is also a wonderful read.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 17 April 2013
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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on 15 January 2013
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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on 21 March 2017
I really enjoyed this book, Helen Dunmore's The Seige is a favourite of mine so my expectations were high.. It's a well paced easy read, I didn't want to put it down, a good holiday book.
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on 11 November 2015
Not as engaging as her other books.
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