Talking to the Dead x 2: Helen Dunmore and Elaine Feinstein

My fourth title-based dual review post this year (after Ex Libris, The Still Point and How Not to Be Afraid), with Betty vs. Bettyville to come in December if I can manage them both. Today I have an early Helen Dunmore novel about the secrets binding a pair of sisters and an Elaine Feinstein poetry collection written after the loss of her husband. Their shared title seemed appropriate as Halloween approaches. Both:


Talking to the Dead by Helen Dunmore (1996)

Nina, a photographer, has travelled to stay with her sister in Sussex after the birth of Isabel’s first child, Antony. A house full of visitors, surrounded by an unruly garden, is perfect for concealment. A current secret trades off with one from deep in the sisters’ childhood: their baby brother Colin’s death, which they remember differently. Antony and Colin function like doubles, with the sisters in subtle competition for ownership of the past and present. This was a delicious read: as close as literary fiction gets to a psychological thriller, dripping with sultry summer atmosphere and the symbols of aphrodisiac foods and blowsy flowers. From the novel’s title and opening pages, you have an inkling of what’s to come, but it still hits hard when it does. Impossible to say more about the plot without spoiling it, so just know that it’s a suspenseful story of sisters with Tessa Hadley, Maggie O’Farrell and Polly Samson vibes. I hadn’t much enjoyed my first taste of Dunmore’s fiction (Exposure), but I’m very glad that Susan’s enthusiasm spurred me to pick this up. (Secondhand purchase, Honesty bookshop outside the Castle, Hay-on-Wye)


Talking to the Dead by Elaine Feinstein (2007)

Much like Margaret Atwood’s Dearly, my top poetry release of last year, this is a tender and playful response to a beloved spouse’s death. The short verses are in stanzas and incorporate the occasional end rhyme and spot of alliteration as Feinstein marshals images and memories to recreate her husband’s funeral and moments from their marriage and travels beforehand and her widowhood afterwards – including moving out of their shared home. The poems flow so easily and beautifully from one to another; I’d happily read much more from Feinstein. This was her 13th poetry collection; before her death in 2019, she also wrote many novels, stories, biographies and translations. I’ll leave you with a poem suitable for the run-up to the Day of the Dead. (Secondhand purchase, Minster Gate Bookshop, York)


Does one or both of these appeal to you?

11 responses

  1. Thanks for the link, Rebecca. I’m so glad you loved the Dunmore as much as I did. I still remember her wonderfully sensuous descriptions of both food and heat many years after I last read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the recommendation!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I think I’d happily read either of these if I came across them.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Both lucky finds for me, especially the Dunmore at just 50p.


  3. The Feinstein appeals a lot – I love her translation work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I noticed she did a lot of translating from the Russian. It sounds like she had quite a varied career. I knew her name but not any of her work until I found this secondhand.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s mainly her Tsvetaeva translations I’ve read and I love the way she renders them!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Ohhh, another one! I’m already a Dunmore fan and the poems sound good too. It’s hard to imagine being playful with poems about grief, but I guess everyone has their own way of coping and this is probably a GOOD way, if only one could manage it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Only the second Dunmore novel I’ve successfully read, but I also have a copy of Zennor in Darkness on the shelf.

      Plenty of sadness in the poems, too, of course, but not raw and with some wry reflection mixed in.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. They’re all as accessible as that one.

      Liked by 2 people

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