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Since I read my first book by author Helen Dunmore, I knew I had found a writer who was going to keep me coming back for more, time after time. Everything she writes seems to leap off the page at you and this applies to both her historical and her psychological novels. These often interweave to tell a story of passion unleashed or restrained; the author does both with style.
Isabel and Nina are sisters bound together over the years by a secret involving the death of their baby brother, Colin. Many years later when Isabel has her own baby son, Nina stays at the country house belonging to Isabel and her husband Richard to help out with nursing Isabel back to health. Isabel had a difficult birth and had to have an emergency hysterectomy, now her recovery has been set back by the demands of breastfeeding. To muddy the waters even further, a young nursery nurse Susan, is engaged to help both Isabel and the baby. It should be a time of sister helping sister, but the dynamics between the girls was always edgy and now Nina is finding herself attracted to Isabel's husband, Richard. The summer looks to be a time of upheaval with each character following their own agendas.
Helen Dunmore creates very believable but complex characters and in this book she concentrates everything into a claustrophobic summer of sibling rivalry, love and loss.
The girls are portrayed in the present but also frequently flash back to episodes in the past. Isabel the eldest should be the leader and spokesperson, but Nina frequently turns the narrative around to her point of view so the reader isn't sure which character, if any, is telling the truth. There's a feeling of inevitability about the long summer spent lazily with Isabel barely eating and the baby still thriving. Into the picture of sisterly devotion some things sound false and it takes a sudden unexpected turn with the arrival of another visitor to keep the tension going.
With Nina providing our narrative voice it's difficult to know what the truth is and if Nina can remember the past with accuracy, since Isabel seems to have been the mother figure to Nina after their own mother left them to their own devices. If so then why does Nina fear her sister at times and at others she seems almost to view her sister as a mother figure?
As the summer drifts towards autumn and the heat builds in intensity, the past starts to interfere with the present and tempers flare. Isabel wants a big party to celebrate the baby's birth but on a thundery morning she vanishes with the baby and fears for their safety take over the story. From here it's a matter of trying to understand where past and present merge and if the past will repeat itself with another tragedy.
This is a complex novel that initially seems straightforward. A story about sibling rivalry and just where the line is drawn between love and loathing. It's also a mystery story in some ways and the reader will have formed views long before the story really starts to have any real impact on the past. I found myself feeling sorry for Nina, the artistic sister who seemed to be under the domination of an older sister, who may or may not have killed their only brother. The story starts with one sister talking over a grave and ends with something similar. But we don't get to know what actually happens, unless the reader makes a leap of faith.
I found the intensity of the story building with each chapter yet I couldn't say how it is done, since Helen Dunmore is so good at this form of writing. At times the lazy days of a typical English middle class summer scene took over only to be shattered by something happening to change that. The power of the attraction between Nina and Richard is shockingly explicit, lending an air of eroticism to seemingly innocent remarks. The end frankly puzzled me and I'd love to know what other readers make of it. This is the mark of excellence in writing and a tribute to the author's writing that draws you in.
I'd recommend it as a thinking woman's book, though I wouldn't class it as solely a woman's story, there is plenty for a man to enjoy.
My copy was a library book and a reprint of an earlier edition written and published in 1996, yet it could have been written recently. At 214 pages it would seem a quick read but I found myself lingering over it. You can buy it for £2.79 at the time of writing this. However I'm not sure when this will be published.
Thanks as always for reading.