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.