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.

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