Helen Dunmore died a year ago, too young at 64, and at the height of her powers as a writer; her last novel Birdcage Walk was ambitious in conception, admirable in execution, disturbing and highly enjoyable. She was first known as a poet and was 40 when her first novel for adults was written. She had always written short stories, but published only one collection. When she knew she was dying, she suggested to her son Patrick that there might be enough unpublished or uncollected short stories to make a book. There were, and it’s a very good book too, which will be welcomed and enjoyed by her readers, for, as her son says: “The collection is Dunmore work through and through… characterised by a preoccupying interest in the individuals who otherwise may not be noted by the hands that write our shared history.”
There are 33 stories here, arranged in three sections: The Nina Stories, incidents in a girl’s life from childhood to adolescent independence, the last of them the collection’s title story; The Present, a couple of the stories here touching on terrorism and the fear of terrorism; and The Past, not always deeper in the past than stories in the second section, but with a couple of very adroit literary-historical reconstructions. “Grace Poole Her Testimony” is a gloss on Charlotte Brontë’s novel, Poole, the nurse-guardian of Mrs Rochester confined to the attic, seeing Jane Eyre herself as a pale and greedy conniving little bitch, and a gloss on Joseph Severn’s memoir of the dying Keats.
Usually when I get a book of short stories I dip in and out, plucking out first those that hold out the promise of being plums. I suppose that this is usual. This time, however, I began with the first story and read straight through. Though there is a progression from dependence to independence in the Nina stories, there is no narrative thread otherwise. Each story is complete in itself, that is, capable of standing alone in a magazine. There was no story that didn’t hold my attention from its first sentences, none that was an obvious dud. This is very rare. By their nature short stories, like poems, are hit or miss. Dunmore may fairly be called a poetic writer, though not given to poeticizing.
Only a couple perhaps of the stories here are the kind of anecdotes which can be re-told effectively. That’s not surprising. The kind of tale which old masters of the short story like Maugham and indeed Kipling – in his early work anyway – did so well is out of fashion and has indeed been so for a long time. There is a narrative in Dunmore’s stories but it often has to be teased out by the reader. Even in one of the strongest stories, “A Thousand Roses”, in which a young mother takes in a charming young man, Khalid, as a lodger, only to be alarmed when he packs her case for her as she is about to take her son on a visit to her father, and she finds a wrapped object which may or may not be a present, and remembers how he talks of the “brothers” of his study group, nothing is spelled out; the story is open-ended. What Dunmore is chiefly concerned with is the mother’s sudden and fearful uncertainty, neatly triggered by a joking comment from her sister: “Her voice boomed in my head as I split into two people. One was on the phone to Carola; the other was silent, hearing echoes that spread like rings from a plunging stone.”
Dunmore wrote about the gaps between people, the way in which love can be selfish and oppressive, about misunderstandings which are sometimes wilful and sometimes nobody’s fault. Some stories touch on magic. One such is “The Musicians of Ingo”, which, in lesser hands would be whimsy, but here rings poetically true. She was very good on weather and food and clothes, but she is best at negotiating the difficult territory in which people reach out to each other and then find that the other’s once necessary hand has fallen away.
Girl, Balancing & Other Stories, by Helen Dunmore, Hutchinson, 368pp, £20