Talking To The Deadby Helen Dunmore
Talking to the Dead is bestselling author Helen Dunmore's fourth novel. There's nothing closer than sisters . . . Unloved by their distant mother, Isabel and Nina cemented their bond in childhood when tragedy struck the family. Many yeas later, with the difficult birth of Isabel's first child, it is Nina who comes to stay and help out her older sister. But Nina has… See more details below
Talking to the Dead is bestselling author Helen Dunmore's fourth novel. There's nothing closer than sisters . . . Unloved by their distant mother, Isabel and Nina cemented their bond in childhood when tragedy struck the family. Many yeas later, with the difficult birth of Isabel's first child, it is Nina who comes to stay and help out her older sister. But Nina has other, important reasons for being under her sister's roof - not least of these is Isabel's husband, Richard. The tragedy that drew two sisters together so many years ago still has the power to wrench them apart . . . 'A writer of quiet deadly power . . . it takes two paragraphs to hook you. Don't resist' Time Out 'Dunmore's capacity for hauntingly psychological storytelling is on brilliant display' Sunday Times 'Flies off the page, startling the reader with its brilliance' Financial Times Helen Dunmore has published eleven novels with Penguin: Zennor in Darkness , which won the McKitterick Prize; Burning Bright; A Spell of Winter, which won the Orange Prize; Talking to the Dead; Your Blue-Eyed Boy; With Your Crooked Heart; The Siege, which was shortlisted for the 2001 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2002; Mourning Ruby; House of Orphan; Counting the Stars and The Betrayal, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2010. She is also a poet, children's novelist and short-story writer.
Nina loves London, but she's relieved to be invited out to the English countryside to help her ailing older sister, Isabel, after the difficult birth of the latter's first child. A wonderful cook who prefers to fix problems rather than talk about them, Nina, an artist and photographer, longs to make herself useful in the home of the beautiful sister she's always idolized. Others have arrived to help as well: Richard, Isabel's concerned but itinerant economist husband; Susan, a young baby-sitter who's just finished her nanny course; and Isabel's best friend, Edward, a homosexual who causes his share of resentment by keeping Isabel all to himself day and night for heart-to-heart chats in her room. The more the adults rub shoulders in the lovely house near the sea, the more the fissures between them become apparent. The weaknesses of Isabel's marriage are exposed when she orders Richard to sleep downstairs and subtly encourages his sexual interest in her sister. Susan, meanwhile, seems to want to keep baby Antony for herself, and Edward all but accuses the others of selfishly looking after their own petty needs while sweet Isabel languishes. The deepest, most horrifying family secret emerges only gradually in fragmentary images, as Nina begins to recall the demise of her infant brother when Isabel was seven and Nina four. Could Isabel have murdered that baby in a fit of sibling jealousy? If so, could she murder again? Nina struggles to remember what really happened during their childhood as time runs out for Antony and as the webs of family intrigue tighten around her.
Sophisticated, sensual, frightening, and remarkably visual: a first-rate debut.
- Penguin UK
- Publication date:
Read an ExcerptTalking to the Dead
A Novel Tag: Winner of the Orange Prize
By Helen Dunmore Back Bay Books
Copyright © 1998 Helen Dunmore
All right reserved.
The newer graves lie full in the sun, beyond the shadow of the church and yew tree. Two of them are covered in plastic-wrapped flowers and raw earth; these graves won't have stones for a while yet, because they must wait for the earth to settle.
There are a lot of things you need to learn when someone dies, and you have to learn fast, from people who are paid to teach you. They come up with hushed, serious faces and ask questions. If you don't say anything right away, they just wait. It's their job. There were two of them standing there, noting down the requirements. One glanced at the other, and they gleamed with satisfaction at phrasing it all so well. But they were much too professional to smile.
And then the food. After a funeral you have to eat, to prove you're still alive. There are foods that are suitable, and foods that are not. The suitable ones turn out to be ham, or cold chicken. Quiche is very popular, and Australian wines. I can remember staring at a big glazed ham, its rind scored into squares and glistening with syrup. I thought of how it would be sliced and fed to us after your burial. Someone was asking me if I would like fresh pineapple to garnish the ham, ortinned.
"Will you want the coffin open, or closed?"
"Some people," one of them whispered, "some people find it a great comfort actually to have seen. Not to have to imagine. It can be a great comfort."
"A great comfort," I say aloud now, taking the words out like stones from my pocket, tossing them into the quiet air.
It's beautiful here, where you are. Tall brick-and-flint walls enclose the churchyard, but we're high up, and the air moves freely. It's hot and dry, and the earth smells like a body stretched out to bake in the sun. Bees have swarmed on the other side of the church. I went round just now, and saw them hanging there in a dark cluster under the roof. Stray bees zinged through the air toward the swarm, and their sound was dangerous, like water in a kettle that has nearly boiled dry. I came away lightly, scarcely breathing.
You are out in the sun, away from the yew tree. Your stone stands firm. I know without looking exactly how many letters there are in the inscription. There is just your full name, the name you've kept since childhood, even after you married, and under your name, the dates of your birth and your death. No message, no reflection on your life. No clues at all. The only thing that might make anyone stop is the shortness of the time between the first date and the last. Someone might count up how long you'd lived, and wonder, and start to make up a story for you out of nothing.
People idling through graveyards always stop by the graves of the young. Hundreds of miles from here is another grave with the same surname on it as yours, a tiny grave in a steep cemetery above the sea. There's a path through the cemetery that tourists use as a shortcut down to the beach. They stop, read the inscription, the name and dates and the two lines of poetry. Often there's a jam jar of flowers left on the grave. If the tourists have children with them, they'll grasp their hands tightly as they walk on. I haven't been there for years. Did you go? Did you leave flowers there, and then stand looking down for a long time, thinking thoughts it's too late to uncover now?
I can almost see you. If I turn my head to the black splash of shade under the yew, now, quickly, I'm certain I'll see you. It's noon, the white hour when ghosts walk, leaving no shadow. But I don't turn my head. I still can't believe that you are here, near enough to touch if you weren't covered. I can't believe that if I dug down I would find first the quilting of earth, then the box, then you, yourself
I lie down. I shut my eyes. I am in bed with you, warm with the warmth of night. I feel your long slender legs curled up behind me, your knees digging into my back.
"Go to sleep."
"I am asleep."
"How can you be asleep when you're talking to me?"
And then silence. We are both asleep, tipping into the valley of the big double bed. None of this has happened yet.
I am on your grave, the warm mound of it shaped to me like a body. But though I listen and listen, there's no heartbeat. Your silence begins to soothe me. The air is warm. If I lie here long enough I'll begin to feel the earth turning beneath me, carrying everything away so that it can bring it back. Nothing can separate us.
I take a breath, and it comes out in your name. Isabel. You always answered. When I had a nightmare I would scream out your name. You'd kneel up beside me in your nightdress. "It's all right, Neen. I'm here."
"Isabel," I would say, "I had a bad dream ..."
The soft breeze flutters in the grass. All the questions I am desperate to ask you float off, as the world floats off just before sleep.
I should have let the taxi take me all the way up to the house. I've packed more than usual, because I don't know how long I'll be staying, and the weather might change. I've brought some work stuff too--sketch pads, pencils, charcoal, inks. But only one camera. It feels strange to travel without my camera bag, the one I don't dare let out of my sight for a second. In London, at home, I haul it between the sweaty filth of the Underground and the heat of flats, shops, and offices. For weeks now it's been the hottest summer I can remember.
I like the early mornings and the smell when the pavement is being hosed down outside cafes. I drink coffee at six and I'm out by seven, when the sun's fresh on my arms, water drips from petunias in lamppost baskets, and vans whiz about full of new bread and newspapers with the print still damp on them. Then I know why I live in London. I'm on my way to meet someone for breakfast and what might just be a new, exciting piece of work. But by eleven the city's used up and sweaty, and the new project's turned out to be photographing someone's day care scheme for a community newspaper. I'm pushing at invisible barriers all the time, never quite getting the work I really want. What is it my pictures don't do?
No need to think about that now. I shift my bag to the other hand and keep on up the rough track. It's getting dark, and all the white things look whiter still: the tall stiff flowers in the hedge, the moths, and my skirt. The air smells unnaturally sweet. There are owls here, but I haven't seen one. Isabel knows about them. A pair of barn owls is nesting this year.
In a way it's lucky I've got so much to carry, or I'd be running, and then I'd arrive just the way I don't want to arrive, hot and out of breath and anxious. And then Richard would be angry. Isabel can't cope with other people's emotions just now, he said. She's not supposed to know he told me to come. She won't like it; she'll say it's interrupting my life and making me lose commissions, when I've worked so hard to build things up. As if I would want to be anywhere else but with her.
I was in the bath when the phone rang. I heard his voice cutting through my recorded message: "Nina, if you're there, pick up the phone. It's Richard, it's important." He knew I often left the answering machine on while I was working. I jumped out of the bath and grabbed the phone and a towel, and covered myself even though he couldn't see me.
"What's the matter? Is Izzy all right?"
"For God's sake, Nina, calm down."
"Has she had the baby?"
"Yes, she's had the baby."
"How is she, what is it, I mean--"
"A boy. It's a boy."
I clutched the phone, and drips of water ran down it. Isabel has a son. Even as I said the words to myself she grew older, more distant, passing through a door that swung shut in my face.
"Yes. But I'm afraid it didn't go quite as we hoped." I heard the tension in his voice now, in its curious flatness. I had imagined how I'd get this news so many times. Always it was Isabel phoning me, Isabel with the baby curled in her arm, both of them weary, but triumphant that they'd found each other at last.
I was glad it was a boy, not a girl. I hadn't let myself know before now how much I didn't want Isabel to have a daughter.
"I can't go into it all now. I'm at the hospital and they're going to let me see her soon."
"Richard, why's she in hospital? She was going to have it at home." I heard my own voice, stupidly accusing.
"Well, she didn't. Her uterus ruptured. They just got the baby out in time," he snapped, as if it were my fault. I was silent, trying to work out what these words meant. Uterus. Ruptured.
"You mean she had a cesarean?"
"I mean she had a hysterectomy."
We were silent. I thought of the wooden handmade rocking cradle, a stupid extravagance for one child.
"It was all going fine," he said, "just as she thought it would. She wasn't even lying down. The midwife was there, having a cup of tea with us while Isabel put some baby clothes to air. She couldn't keep still, she kept moving round." He paused. "That track," he said. "I'll make Wilkinson mend that effing track if it's the last thing I do."
Wilkinson is the farmer who owns their house. "Couldn't the ambulance get up it?" I asked.
"There wasn't time to wait for an ambulance. I drove and the midwife went in the back of the car with her."
"But she's all right," I stated. It wasn't bathwater on the phone now, it was sweat from my hand.
"She'll be all right," said Richard. He threw the monosyllables at me as if they were balls he was bowling too fast. But cricket isn't Richard's game. Richard is three-quarters Irish by blood. Maybe you'd guess it from his eyes, which are bluer than English eyes, and they go with dark hair and skin rather than English fairness. Or you'd guess it from a concentration in his features, which makes them look as if they've been pushed together. He's a big man, over six feet tall and bulky too. He makes me jump when I come on him suddenly in the house.
I didn't know the right questions to ask. I don't know anything about childbirth, or babies. I listened to the telephone silence and told myself that Isabel was safe in the hospital, being looked after. No one dies of having a baby nowadays, even if things go wrong. In a few days she'd be home.
I could smell the hospital, as if I were there too. I saw Isabel flat out on one of those trolleys, her face knocked sideways by pain and her eyes closed. Her stomach was hollow where they'd taken out the baby. Her womb had gone too, that grown-up thing that bled three years before mine did. The wheels squeaked and two men shoved her down the corridor, very fast. In the doorway behind, dwindling, Richard watched too. I knew how he would look angry, and helpless.
"I'll come down," I said. "I can be there in less than three hours."
"There's no point in you coming now. I'd planned to have this week off anyway. But I'm in Korea next week, and she'll need someone then. She'll only just be out of hospital."
My mouth opened to ask him if he could cancel the trip to Korea, then shut again. Richard is an economist who specializes in developing computerized models for fast-growth economies. There is not much work for him in Europe. Apparently he is accomplished, single-minded, and indispensable in his field. I haven't heard this from Isabel, who never talks about Richard's work, but from an article in the Financial Times, which said that if Maynard Keynes were reborn now he would be Richard.
"Of course I'll come. I'll come whenever Isabel needs me."
My hands shook as I jabbed the phone's aerial down into its skull and put it on its rest. I had a pain in my throat, as if talking to Richard had hurt me. I found I was clutching my towel tightly round me. Deliberately, I unclenched my fingers and let it fall. There was my stomach, pale and whole. I thought of Isabel's brown summer belly, her deep navel. I touched my skin and ran my hand across it to feel that it was unscarred. Then I went straight into the kitchen, cut a thick crust of a fresh white loaf, smeared it with butter and then with apricot jam, and ate it fast, cramming it into my mouth. There was sweat on my forehead, so I wiped it off and kept on eating. I was not going to let myself think of the things Richard had said, not yet.
It's nearly a mile up the track from the road to Isabel's house. By now I'm walking more slowly, prolonging the moment of not having arrived yet. Usually I do this because I find that holding myself back from something I long for only adds to the pleasure I get in the end. But this time the reason is different. I'm afraid I'll make a mistake. Say the wrong thing, touch her when she doesn't want to be touched, admire the baby when all she cares about is the other babies, the ones she can't have anymore. I can be clumsy sometimes. Richard makes me feel that I am clumsy most of the time. There is too much of me for him.
And then I see it. An owl, its wings spread, going down the lane in front of me. So light, it reminds me--
The way some birds fly, you'd think they were fucking the air.
Who said that? I can't remember. Someone I didn't expect to have thoughts like that, because I was surprised.
The owl will get there first. I shift my case to the other hand yet again, and plod on.
Excerpted from Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore Copyright © 1998 by Helen Dunmore. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Helen Dunmore has published nine novels with Penguin: Zennor in Darkness, which won the McKitterick Prize; Burning Bright; A Spell of Winter, which won the Orange Prize; Talking to the Dead; Your Blue-Eyed Boy; With Your Crooked Heart; The Siege, which was shortlisted for the 2001 Whitbread Novel of the Year Award and for the Orange Prize for Fiction 2002; Mourning Ruby and House of Orphans. She is also a poet, children’s novelist and short-story writer.
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