Ripples of sensation and chunks of memory

Ice Cream by Helen Dunmore (Viking, £15.99, 218pp)

Friday 16 August 2013 06:25

In Helen Dunmore's second collection of short stories, young girls suck clover in summer fields; ripe, wild berries are crushed into mouths; supermodel Clara of the title story "does not even think of eating ice cream, any more than she thinks of committing murder or lying in the midday sun," yet is seduced by the creamy scent of vanilla. People are described in terms of food: a girl in "Salmon" with skin like a brown speckled egg, a man in "The Icon Room" whose face is "waxy-yellow, like a good potato".

Other appetites are celebrated. An image in "Living Out" crystallises drunkenness: "The air would rush past them and the stars and the pavement would swing like boats at a fair". "The Fag" devotes three pages to the experience of desiring and lighting up a cigarette. Meanwhile, "Be Vigilant, Rejoice, Eat Plenty" heralds the divorced heroine's return to happiness with the consumption of buttery croissants and hot chocolate with whipped cream and cinnamon.

Most stories are set in present-day Britain, though Dunmore ventures briefly into future and past, to America, France and Scandinavia. The future is a eugenic nightmare in "Leonardo, Michelangelo, Superstork", while "Emily's Ring" takes us back to Victorian times for the harrowing tale of a put-upon young girl in charge of six half-siblings who run her ragged on a beach, with horrible consequences.

Darkness laced with terrible poignancy runs through the collection, reaching its apotheosis in a beautifully told story about a French Jewish child in the Holocaust. "Lisette" is the best thing here, the truest and most powerful, totally simple and totally moving.

Dunmore's themes give free reign to her poetic skill, and the immediacy of childhood and adolescent experience recurs. She relishes striving for the uniqueness of a particular sensation and the simple language constantly yields arresting images. Describing pain, "I could have stood up and peeled out my spine from my flesh like the spine of a salmon," says the invalid in "You Stayed Awake With Me".

The nearest thing to humour is "Mason's Mini-break", a nice swipe at literary elites, in which a self-important Booker Prize-winner encounters and patronises the ghost of Charlotte Brontë while out walking in West Yorkshire.

But though humour may be short, a general lightness of touch alleviates the grimness, and the sensual descriptions add piquancy. Life, while sad to the point of excruciation, is also rich and delicious. Subtle and delicate as the sweet confection of its title, Ice Cream is a collection that rewards a second reading.

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