Conventions of sisterly love

TALKING TO THE DEAD by Helen Dunmore, Viking pounds 16
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The Independent Culture
This, Helen Dunmore's fourth novel, tugs intriguingly in several directions. It displays the dreaminess I associate with all her writing, her characteristic interest in emotional experience, but foregrounds sex in a new way, and rushes towards a melodramatic denouement, featuring windy beaches and lonely cliffs worthy of Daphne du Maurier herself.

The story is told in the first person by Neen, otherwise Nina, a photographer who makes drawings as well. Neen is the childhood nickname bestowed on her younger sister by the confident and beautiful Isabel, also called Izz. When Isabel has her first baby, Nina goes down to look after her in the large, beautiful and ancient Sussex farmhouse that Isabel rents, and whose garden she has transformed.

Such a paradise demands a serpent, which duly turns up in the shape of illicit sex, in the present, and hints of intense jealousy and possible fratricide in the past. Isabel's husband, Richard, a large, handsome, capable man, seems a little shadowy. The author sketches him with affection and sympathy, and if his outline is blurry it's perhaps because she's not looking at his character too closely. He is a warm, masculine presence, whose function in the plot is mainly sexual. As Isabel retreats into a convalescence made more difficult by her private fears, guilts and obsessions, Richard turns to Nina for comfort, and Nina duly responds. As you'd expect, there are tears after bedtime.

The heart and core of the novel is the baffling relationship between the two sisters. This area, previously of low status in the history of approved subjects for novels, is now opening up under the scrutiny of many very different women writers. We're aware, therefore, that sisters feel as much rivalry as love, engage in desperate games of push-and-shove to gain parental approval and praise, and might well, if they are close, fancy each other's husbands.

Helen Dunmore creates a pair of sisters who seem to be clean opposites. Nina is an artist, happily single and unmaternal, an independent worker, a food-lover who's also a brilliant cook. Her world is that of London, the brisk streets of early morning at "seven, when the sun's fresh on my arms, water drips from petunias in lamp-post baskets, and vans whizz about full of new bread and newspapers with the print still damp on them". Isabel, by contrast, lurks uneasily trapped in the domestic interior which narrows to her bedroom, where she nibbles biscuits since she can't face eating in public and chats to her gay friend Edward, and from which her unhappy husband is barred. Put back together, on the level of archetypes, Isabel and Nina make up a complete human being. Their unconscious understanding and complicity, even their swivelling and swerving guilt over the cot- death or murder of their baby brother in childhood, make them sound like twins.

What I found completely impossible to understand was Nina's claiming to love Isabel while simultaneously beginning an affair with her husband, to care about her sister's misery and pain while calmly enjoying the sex her sister can't have. Nina's desire for Richard is never made apparent. Their sessions in the long grass have a heated, drugged, dreamlike quality. This atmosphere of torpid summer pervades the entire book. Nina claims that Isabel tacitly approves of her husband's unwelcome attentions being removed elsewhere. Oh, so that's all right. Isabel, cold and devious, comes across as a bit of a monster in her way. Nina lacks human sympathy; she likes to observe. She has a precise photographer's eye.

Dunmore has claimed to admire Graham Greene's capacity to write about evil without apportioning blame. In Greene's books, though, while men wrestle with truth, the blame gets dumped on the women. Dunmore is more like Zola, coolly dissecting her tormented characters from a distance. In fact, this is not a realist novel at all. Plot and character exist only to support the beauty of the writing, much as the shapes and lines in an impressionist painting serve to carry runs of colour. Dunmore is a poet, and it shows here in her marvellously exact eye for the telling detail, her relish of landscape, her wonderful capacity for sensual evocation of nature. Looking through Nina's eyes, we see the world re-composed. People dissolve into dots. Conventional morality has no place, indeed, in this vision. It's the beauty of the work of art that matters.