Janette Turner Hospital
- Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore
Viking, 224 pp, £16.00, July 1996, ISBN 0 670 87002 1
Love of fat men. Ulli would like to go and see a film with this title. She would buy herself a fistful of Panda liquorice and a daytime ticket and sit there and watch it through again and again, until the usherette sent for the manager ... She thinks of a man who was in a promising way to be fat one day. For now he makes do with a curve of the jowl, a faint trace that time will roll out in flesh. Around his lips there is a gloss of oil. He has always just finished eating spaghetti. And not cheap dried macaroni either. He has a pasta machine in his kitchen. He strips off long ribbons of slippery translucent dough and coats them in virgin green olive oil and eats them just as they are.
So begins a short story whose insouciance and quirky eroticism enchanted me in 1992 when I read it in Heinemann’s Best Short Stories, the annual selection edited by Giles Gordon and David Hughes. I made a mental note of the author’s name, Helen Dunmore, because I’d never heard of her before. A name to watch for, I thought, and watched for it in The Best of Best Short Stories, 1986-95. Dunmore was not included, which I thought a puzzling mistake on the editors’ part. In the intervening years, I’d reread ‘Love of Fat Men’ several times, was freshly delighted by it each time, and had urged it on assorted friends and students; but I read nothing further of Dunmore’s, and her name did not impinge again on my consciousness until A Spell of Winter, her third novel, was shortlisted for, and subsequently won, the Orange Prize, and then I congratulated myself on my literary percipience. But after reading that novel, and now Talking to the Dead, I feel somewhat disappointed, as though Dunmore the novelist has let Dunmore the short story writer down. I am, however, forcibly struck by the curious titular appropriateness of the Orange Prize, since one of the constants in her fiction is that she writes far more sexily about food than she does about sex.
Consider these passages from Talking to the Dead, her fourth novel. Here is Nina cooking for Richard, her lover (he also happens to be her sister’s husband), her thoughts full of sexual innuendo:
We’ll eat together, in the dark, cool dining-room. I’m going to bake the salmon, very slowly, with dill and juniper berries ...
This morning I took the fish out of the freezer and unwrapped it. It was a big, lithe, silvery creature, hardly a scale on it damaged. Alex had packed it carefully, with a sprig of heather in its mouth. He had gutted it, and the flaps of its belly lay neatly together, like lips. It would be sweeter in flavour, more intense, less fatty than a farmed animal ... It lay on its long dish arched a little, as if remembering a leap.
And here are Nina and Richard after sex:
‘Wait a minute. Open your legs.
‘I’ve had enough Richard.’
‘I’m only going to wash you.’ He scoops a handful of water, washes my vulva as gently and quickly as a nurse. ‘Now you do me.’ I pass him the half-full bucket and then I wash his penis, his balls, the sweat and semen trapped in his hair.
‘There, you’re clean.
And dry, one is inclined to think, suspecting they would have got more pleasure out of licking lips over that slick salmon.
The short story ‘Love of Fat Men’ is offbeat, off-kilter, witty, light-hearted, erotic in a diffused way, with a delicate undertow of melancholy that lingers: a tracing of the thwarted love of the straight for the gay, of the gay for the straight. It is suffused with the sexiness of food, and with the libidinous enfolding ambience of a country house in its own sensual landscape. All of these elements, except – unfortunately – the witty light-heartedness, are also present in the novels, whose mood is Gothic and melodramatic rather than wry. They are terribly solemn, opting for over-heated explorations of the perverse, rather than the wittily off-kilter. The gay/straight liaisons have become morbidly obsessive, the country house more suffocating than enfolding. As the narrator of Talking to the Dead says of the sharp differences between herself and her sister: ‘All those genes thrown up into the air as casually as dice have come down quite differently each time.’
Indeed they have. Of course, all artists keep circling the same obsessions, the same preoccupations, and the mapping of the art/life loop is always a dicey business. In Dunmore’s third and fourth novels, the recasting of the same elements results in a kind of re-spelling of winter, winterlude for a summer season, the same tune in a different key. Both novels are about the family as savage crucible, and both explore the thesis that nothing feeds passionate dysfunction and dysfunctional passions so much as family secrets that have to be repressed. In both novels there are the perpetual shadow presences of the fey and arty but absent mother, and the pathetic but absent father; the symbiosis of two siblings thus left to each other (the younger sibling being the narrator in each case), and the consequent hothouse of dangerous passions and eventual incestuous sex (literal in A Spell of Winter, transposed a notch in Talking to the Dead); and the related death that may or may not have been murder. Both novels are cramped by the country house and by the agoraphobic woman self-imprisoned there. The reader is glad to come up for fresh air on leaving such claustrophobic narrative space. Whether those characters who are left alive by the final page will find exits and oxygen is less certain, though the prognosis is cautiously hopeful. The message seems to be that when both parents are dead, along with the other air-taking sibling and all those who knew the terrible secrets, a new life, albeit sadder and wiser, is possible.
In A Spell of Winter, Catherine, the narrator, and her older brother Rob, grow up in the large crumbling country house with their grandfather, assorted housemaids and Miss Gallagher, a prissy governess whom neither can stand, but who suffers unrequited passion for young Cathy. The children puzzle over the sudden and mystifying disappearance of their parents, a topic which must not be spoken of in public. There are clues picked up from village gossip, from the servants, from the mean-spirited and jealous Miss Gallagher. There is a disturbing visit to their father in another country house, one with doctors and nurses and live-in guests – the ‘Sanctuary’, where he had to be sent in the wake of their mother’s failure to return from a holiday in Europe. Back at grandfather’s, the children share a bedroom, and often snuggle into the same bed, inventing their own explanations for what has happened. On the surface, their childhood is one of unfettered hedonism. They do everything together: they ride, swim, pick wild berries, shoot rabbits, grow into adolescence, share the haying and the harvest dances, and keep a similarly wary eye on each other’s potential romantic partners.
Then the moment arrives when all this steamy togetherness explodes into sexual climax, pushed across illicit limits by Rob’s jealousy of Cathy’s imminent surrender to her would-be suitor, the gentleman farmer from the neighbouring farm. The tryst in the woods is connected with thoughts of food:
Then it was all over. We weren’t Rob and Cathy any more. We were two cold, aching lumps of flesh, crushed together and wanting to be separate ...
‘I’m hungry,’ said Rob. I laughed aloud in relief.
‘You’re always hungry!’
‘Yes, but now I could eat anything. I could eat Miss Gallagher.’
It was an old fantasy of ours. How would we cook her to make her edible? Long, slow roasting after a judicious period of hanging in the game larder? Or should she be cut into small blocks of flesh and casseroled in the ashes overnight? And how should she be flavoured? We could never decide how she’d taste.
‘Like a mackintosh when it’s been rolled up and put away wet.’
‘Like the sweat on cheese.’
‘If we had a fire, we could cook something,’ I said.
The thoughts are prophetic, for it is Miss Gallagher who later witnesses their continuing passion, and whose vengeful jealousy must be silenced. The reader is spared no Gothic twist: Cathy’s pregnancy, a grisly abortion, the sudden questionable death of Miss Gallagher, Cathy’s guilt-wracked tailspin into anorexia and agoraphobia, Rob’s breaking out of the sealed bubble of house and family, his escape to Canada. But guilt is a shackle not easily shed, and it breeds further guilts, not all of them rational. It trades on the loss of moral certainty:
And Miss Gallagher’s dead, knowing what Rob and I did at night in the narrow space of my bed ... Rob thinks he knows what happened in the wood. If I said again that she fell down before I had a chance to touch her he would want to believe it, but in the end uncertainty would creep back ... I can’t give him certainty because I haven’t got it ... Everyone reassured me, but there’s still a little gap that no one knows about except me.
The real question, for both Rob and Cathy, is this: how culpable are you for the death of someone whom you have passionately wanted dead?
The same kind of gnawing moral uncertainty undermines the lives of Isabel and Nina, the sisters in Talking to the Dead. When Isabel was seven and Nina (the narrator) four, their infant brother Colin died. A cot death. Neither had welcomed his intrusion into their charmed circle of two. His arrival was a fluke, due to a brief return of their literary father from his mistress in London, and a consequent cordial night of wining and dining with their self-absorbed mother, who otherwise spent most of her time in the Sussex country house at her potter’s wheel and her kiln. Colin’s birth was an accident, as was his death. Perhaps. Very likely both Isabel and Nina wished him dead. Did Isabel, in fact, kill him? Did Nina? Each has awful, but contradictory memories, from which each ‘protects’ the other out of the intense mutual preoccupation to which they have always given the name of love, though Isabel’s husband warns Nina: ‘I don’t think you two do each other any good.’ When Isabel, in the new country house and garden which she has bought for herself, gives birth to a son, the psychic drama is reenacted. Nina, the single career woman, leaves London to stay with her sister and with her sister’s husband, Richard. She goes to ‘help out’, since Isabel seems to be having emotional problems in the wake of the birth. Edward, one of Isabel’s numerous close gay friends, is there too, giving Isabel his devoted attention. In fact, all the ingredients for Gothic drama are in place, with the theatrical addition of angry sea, for Isabel’s country house is close to Brighton; Isabel’s agoraphobia, already in place before the birth, now closes in on all of them.
Nina, who loves to cook, remembers that Isabel’s anorexia, or at least her inability to eat in the presence of other people, set in at the time of Colin’s death, which was also when Nina’s own obsession with food began. Isabel ‘always hated people who ate too much’, Nina muses: ‘except me. She liked me to eat.’ Later, Isabel, discussing with Nina her loss of interest in Richard since the baby’s arrival, makes the connection between food, sex and death explicit:
The trouble is, men need sex ... I don’t though, do you? Not really. You soon get used to not having it. I remember thinking the same about food. All those people thinking they had to have food all the time or they’d die, always thinking about it and talking about it and going out to the shops for it and then sitting chomping it down, and yet it wasn’t really necessary at all. All the world turned on something you could do without. I wanted to shout out and tell everyone the truth.’
‘But you didn’t.’
‘Oh no,’ says Isabel, ‘that sort of thing you keep to yourself, don’t you?’ ...
‘You don’t need to worry about Richard,’ I say.
They all needed to worry about the new baby, however, and with good cause, it turns out; but then, worry about new babies is universal, and always with good cause. New babies are fragile, a population at high risk. If you have a pathological fear of that risk, if you wait for it with a sort of doomed resignation, if you half-want it in order to answer some anguished, unanswerable question, are you guilty of unleashing it when it strikes? ‘I don’t want to hurt him,’ Nina muses of the new baby, ‘but I’m afraid of wanting to hurt him.’
These are weighty moral and psychological issues, and Dunmore means to explore them seriously, yet there is, in the end, something disappointingly trivialising about both books. Perhaps this has to do with stylistic lapses, from some fine lyrical writing (she is also a poet) to quite banal stretches of dialogue. Perhaps the Gothic trappings are responsible, or the absence of tonal variation. One keeps hoping for some ironic and debunking self-awareness on the narrator’s part, but there is only self-consciousness of the narcissistic sort, and the portentous where one might hope for the profound.
Isolated houses, mysterious disappearances, sibling rivalry, sibling love, illicit passion, dead babies, murderous instincts: it’s a thick brew to stir, and then restir. ‘Why do I always make such a drama out of everything?’ Nina asks, half-heartedly forestalling the Gothic climax of the novel. Elsewhere she notes: ‘Isabel and I were in the habit of exaggerating our own lives, and each other’s ... All this began as a game we played, the kind of game sisters play when they need to find out how different they are. But it turned into a game that played us.’
Love of Fat Men. I would like to read a Dunmore novel with this title. It could be set in a country house and there could be sad-sweet loves between gays and straights, and there could be illicit passions and wild strawberries and the sexy sucking of slippery foods, and the characters could even have ghastly secrets in their closets, but they would not lose their sense of humour or their sense of proportion or their witty ability to debunk portentousness, and Dunmore wouldn’t let formulaic Gothic conventions turn into a game that played her.