“We hover on the edge of what used to be said, caught up, as we used to be caught in the histories we made up for Rosina and Mandy. They were always changing. That was the best thing about the dolls. If the storyline didn’t work out, we could always erase their pasts…”
Increasingly as a reader I’m drawn to unreliable narrators and ambiguous narratives: perhaps it’s a sort of literary knee-jerk response to the tidily spelled out, wrapped up, reading-group-questions-at-the-end books that seem to be in vogue. I’m a reader who likes to have a hand in my own reading experiences, constructing characters in my mind, piecing together various scenes and elements and braiding a sense of meaning from what is not said as much as what is said. That might be why spoilers don’t bother me at all. A good book should be so much more than its final chapter, and so often, a book can be made even better without that big reveal.
Helen Dunmore’s Talking to the Dead puts the onus on the reader to construct a truth of their own, and there are many possibilities at work here, each of which is plausible, and each of which is devastating.
From the book’s outset, when freelance photographer Nina has gone to stay with her older sister Isabel, who has recently given birth, we have a sense of creeping disquiet. There’s something slightly odd about Nina’s venturing out into rural Wales for an extended stay given the circumstances: why is her presence needed when Isabel has hired a nanny and Isabel’s partner is a constant fixture? Why, when the sisters seem to be entirely divergent in their personalities, and seem painfully lost when in each other’s company?
Set during an uncharacteristic heatwave in rural Wales, the novel all but pulsates with a humidity of both setting and morality: it’s rich and cloying, and distinctly unsettling. Isabel is strange and withdrawn, her unearthly beauty an ailing foil for her odd behaviour, such as her disordered eating and her worsening agoraphobia, both of which she hides through careful planning and excuses. Her relationship with her son, too, seems stilted and distant; it’s his nanny who seems to be taking on the mother role, not Isabel. But as Nina’s interactions with both her sister and nephew begin to send her searching through her own childhood memories, we begin to see what might be behind the eerie dynamics at work here: the childhood death of the sisters’ infant brother.
The circumstances about this long-ago death seem to shift and cant as we learn more about Nina and Isobel, and as the book progresses we wonder whether we’re dealing with an accident or something more. And of course, if it’s the latter, then who might be at fault. At first, the truth seems obvious: Isobel seems to have a flippant attitude with both truth and memory, both of which she seems to approach in a changeable manner, while Nina is immensely protective of and deferential to her older sister. It’s little wonder, then, that Nina is wary of leaving her sister alone with her newborn son. But yet, as we learn more about Nina, we can’t help but wonder whether there’s some narrative misdirection at work here, or whether we too, like Nina, are being buffeted by the manipulative hand of Isobel into seeing a truth that might not be there at all.
The novel is awash with nature and place, both of which provide an off-kilter sense of the gothic. The pages are rich with descriptions of the sensuality of food and human physicality, both of which Nina partakes in with bacchanal delight, which only stand out further given the counterpoint of Isobel’s sensory abstinence. Is the latter’s approach some sort of penance? Or is it a response to Nina’s own appetites? Or is each merely one side of a coin?
Whichever conclusion you come to by the end of the book–the onus is, after all, on you–I’m willing to contend that you’ll be deeply unnerved when you’ve turned the final page.
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Other books by Helen Dunmore: