Moments of poetry in writer’s last tales
“My life’s stem was cut,” writes celebrated British poet and novelist Helen Dunmore in a poem from the Costa Book of the Year award-winning Inside the Wave, her 12th and final poetry collection, written when she had cancer, from the vantage point of a writer with “hours yet./Thousands, by her reckoning”. Dunmore, also the author of 15 novels, fiction for young adults and children and four short-story collections, died last year soon after its publication.
In one poem, the speaker imagines being poised “in the deep deep water / Lightly held by one ankle / Out of my depth, waiting”. This image of attending the unknown — death, specifically, but not only — is one that resonates through the stories collected posthumously in Girl, Balancing.
The collection begins with four Nina Stories. In the first few, Nina is yanked and held “out of her depth, waiting”. As a small child, she wakes alone with earache and is brought into the night space of her parents’ relationship. They smell of smoke, cider and “the time that happened after she went to bed”. In later stories, she negotiates the awkward intimacy of a shared boarding house bathroom and having to pay for the drinks of extravagant friends. These stories lead to the fourth, Girl, Balancing, where the dangers of ice-skating and loneliness frame the menacing unknowability of her sometimes-boyfriend Mal, from whom, suddenly, she has to escape.
Like the creep of darkness into this sequence and story, disquiet seeps into relationships and moments. It’s in Mal’s sneering questions — “You don’t think I’m going to hurt you, do you?” and “Don’t you trust me?” — as his thumbs press into Nina’s throat.
It’s in the glimpse of a stretch of urban wilderness “full of owls and murders and rare orchids” and the indistinct struggle of a man and woman witnessed from afar by two young women. It’s in the anodyne monologue of an embittered middle-aged university administrator, ogling young students (“the girls are so lovely”), his offer of tea to a Chinese international student during a meeting, and the predatory surge of entitlement when she demurs: “She is refusing me … Doesn’t she understand that it’s polite to accept what you are offered?”
The collection is prefaced by a foreword by Dunmore’s son, Patrick Charnley. He describes working with his mother before her death to “get things in order” — from Spotify passwords to emails and the management of her literary estate. Although she mentioned that “a collection of short stories at some point might be nice”, she added that it would depend on “how good they are”. Charnley’s modest preface echoes her own humility and limns questions of curating and editing a writer’s private and public words, and the ways death affects these.
“For my mother, humour was one of the sides of a good life,” writes Charnley. Much of this humour curls itself in the shade of covert and overt violence. A young postgraduate student, Hamid, wears his girlfriend’s Santa’s Sweetheart dressing gown, but only because police are raiding their home. His neighbour, a woman in her 60s, sees the police assessing her — “a nan. Sixtyish, overweight in spite of religious attendance at Zumba in the church hall, wearing glasses, clutching grandchild” — and coolly assesses this dismissal later while she considers “what to do”. Dunmore writes about acquisitiveness, manipulation and narcissism — all the jostling and jousting human beings tend towards — a trace of tenderness registering the weakness from which such actions spring amid celebration of those who resist or survive them. Hidden or undercelebrated courage is held in the stories’ empathetic stretch. This is the subject of Esther to Fanny in which an academic whose mother has recently died considers 18th-century writer Fanny Burney. Burney underwent a mastectomy in the days before anaesthesia and wrote about it to a friend. The narrator’s students wonder why someone of Burney’s age would bother (she was 59 and lived for another 29 years) “in order to be old for even more years”. During the operation, Burney had a cambric handkerchief placed over her eyes and now, though time lays its own “semi-transparent cambric handkerchief” across her, her letter still “cuts like polished steel”.
In an exquisitely poised story of humble courage and desolation, a young father walks with his baby out into the night, drawn equally to the annihilating sea — “the swell, the muscle of it pulling from the deep Atlantic, the concussion when it runs up against granite” — and the beautiful words he might use to call to his beloved from the darkness they are in: “that all places and all seasons shall be sweet to him, so long as she is there”.
Other stories involve John Donne, Keats and Grace Poole, the housekeeper in Jane Eyre, as well as people — especially older people, and women — usually overlooked. A few stories feel slightly sketchy or provisional but none is without its moments of poetry and each is cut with a sharp blade.
“My stem was cut”, yet Dunmore wrote in and beyond that experience: I know I am dying But why not keep flowering As long as I can From my cut stem? These stories follow final, sharp flourish. Inside the Wave is a poet and critic. with a