The Orange Prize may currently be the biggest award for fiction, in terms of both prize money and irritable column inches, yet there remains something curiously quiet about the award itself. Helen Dunmore, the inaugural winner, has hardly become the Rushdie or Ishiguro of our age, nor is she likely to do so. Her achievement remains quintessentially female: modest, low key, hidden even.
This may be something to do with Dunmore herself who is not flashy in person or literary style. Yet, like many women, her modesty acts as a useful cover for intensity of a different sort. Talking to the Dead, her new novel, takes the supposedly small scale, the domestic and fills it with unnamed threat. To describe it by its apparent subject matter is to conjure up images of a certain kind of "women's novel". Two sisters spend a portion of a hot summer together in a house near Brighton. Their past both binds and separates them. Beautiful Isabel has just had a baby. Her younger sister, Nina, the career woman from the city, comes to help after a difficult birth. So begins a summer of revelation and tragedy...
Dunmore's writing is both lyrical and menacing. Two sisters, yes, but this is not the territory of self-conscious feminist fiction, with a moral sting in its tale, nor anything like the well explored narratives of love and competition between two sisters such as both Margaret Drabble and A S Byatt have produced. Relations between the sisters here are glanced upon rather than laboured: odd snatches of conversation related, fragments of a childhood remembered with the familiarity and strangeness of a dream. We learn as much from what is not said, as from what is spoken aloud. Spareness is an over-used description but Dunmore does know how to round out her story to fullness by hinting at dialogues in rooms we will never enter, dramas in a past that truly has become another country.
On another level, this is a thriller. Anthony, the newborn baby, evokes memories of another child, who lived and died in mysterious circumstances a generation ago. The uncovering of that mystery is one important strand in the book. Dunmore cleverly twists and turns the plot right up to the last page. But her real skill lies in suggesting that human relations have in themselves the quality of a thriller: there is something unsolved or at least unresolved in all our pasts: we are all deceivers with something to hide.
Yet even this professional tension-making would not rise much above the mundane were it not for the sensuous quality of the writing. If family is the overt subject of the book, its covert subject is summer and the exaggeration of the senses. Dunmore brilliantly evokes both the freedom and claustrophobia of that season: the threat and promise of extreme heat. By cutting us off from each other, almost trapping us, we are free to revel in self absorption: "The heat builds its own silence. It cuts us off as surely as a flood. Walking through the field I feel like a dot in so much summer".
Dunmore writes wonderfully about food and sex, both appetites treated slowly and seriously, dwelt upon with a writerly pleasure: the "crazy fissures of sweetness" in a ripe purple fig; a cooled salmon parted from its skin and silver paper as easily as a healthy baby born on its due date. Dunmore is as concrete about sex: there is none of the vagueness of misplaced romanticism or irritating symbolism. Sexual desire is as elusive as a look, a light touch: it is also about orifices and the sweet and sour tang of sweat.
Talking to the Dead's only fault is a strange one: it's almost too perfect. It lacks ragged edges, rawness. If one misses a connection to the wider world, one has to remind oneself that this is a book about what happens when people seal themselves off from that wider world.