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Sense and Memory

TALKING TO THE DEAD.\o7 By Helen Dunmore (Little, Brown: 300 pp., $12.95 paper)\f7 ; YOUR BLUE-EYED BOY. \o7 By Helen Dunmore (Little, Brown: 282 pp., $23.95)\f7

July 19, 1998|PHYLLIS RICHARDSON | Phyllis Richardson is the author of "Portmanteau."

Reading Helen Dunmore is like sitting down to a feast. The flavors are intoxicating, her sensuous prose enveloping, the complexity of the stories just enough to make you want more. Indeed, food and eating are important to Dunmore's characters, as is the sea--an unpredictable and potentially dangerous element and a metaphor for those human characteristics.

Dunmore was the first recipient of the Orange Prize (for fiction by a woman) in Britain for her third novel, "A Spell of Winter," in 1996. Her two subsequent novels, "Talking to the Dead" and "Your Blue-Eyed Boy," now available in the United States, will strengthen her reputation. "Talking to the Dead," the more compelling of the latest books, tells the story of two sisters whose lives are haunted by the death of an infant brother. Nina, the younger sibling, is a photographer who lives in London. She goes to stay with Isabel, who has suffered a complicated childbirth and emergency hysterectomy. Although Isabel's husband, Richard, has always been dismissive of Nina ("Richard makes me feel that I am clumsy most of the time"), he grudgingly asks her to come and help out. At first, Nina's love for Isabel is of a suffocating intensity that approaches idolatry. The living room of Isabel's cottage "seems entirely beautiful, in the same way as my sister seems entirely beautiful." Isabel embodies a serene effortless beauty in stark contrast to the awkwardness Nina has always felt. Isabel lives in a rambling cottage and nurtures a large garden full of trees, shrubs, flowers and carefully constructed paths, whereas Nina inhabits a seemingly sterile "white-walled attic flat" in the city.

Nina worries for her sister's health and for the baby boy whose birth has inspired vivid childhood memories. Their younger brother, Colin, was said to have died of crib death at three months, and Nina is beset by images of the infant and of the moment when they found him dead. As scenes of early childhood are replayed, a stronger, more cunning Isabel comes into focus, and Nina starts to question the circumstances of Colin's death. Her concentrated love for her sister begins to cleave into more complex feelings of pain, rivalry and something bordering on hatred.

These kinds of revelations are nothing new, but Dunmore makes the transition palpable. As Isabel, Nina, Richard, the nanny and Edward, Isabel's devoted gay friend who is waiting out a lover's quarrel, circle around the baby and each other, the temperature rises like the record-breaking summer heat that crawls up the very walls as the day progresses. "It's been hot enough for mirages, for rivers walking upside down," and in the garden Nina sees "a tree with red fruit on it that seems to drip down the stone of the wall."

But before it all turns sour, Nina falls in with the others to help Isabel and devises a sumptuous meal. Eating, as Dunmore points out in the early pages, is something you do after funerals "to prove you're still alive." Here, the characters do it as a palliative; later on Isabel plans a grand dinner as a sort of mask of normalcy. As Nina contemplates the first well-intentioned meal, words are enough to prompt saliva:

"The tart must cook until the tips of the apple rings are almost black but the fruit itself is still plump and moist. When you close your eyes and bite you must taste caramel, sharp apple, juice, and the short, sandy texture of sweet pastry all at once. No one taste should be stronger than another."

There are many tastes to savor while the communal goodwill erodes: sibling love and resentment, the disappointment of a sexless marriage, the excitement and tension of sexual betrayal, the rancor of those incensed by disloyalty. Edward catches Nina and Richard making love in the garden, and the nanny thinks the baby is being underfed by his distracted mother. Richard finds himself an unnecessary household ornament. Nina indulges him in his unhappiness and gives herself the consolation of his attention while facing the disturbing truth about the veneer of devotion she and Isabel have maintained.

Sense is tied to memory, but Dunmore's characters don't dip in and out of their recollections like painters testing color. They are more like people being pulled under water and emerging, opening their eyes a little wider with each dunk to understand the world of the past that exists beneath the veil of the present.

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